Can Background Music Boost Cognition?

Can Background Music Boost Cognition - Sync Project Blog
Evidence suggests that background music can boost cognition and memory formation by increasing arousal.

People intuitively use music to support their thinking at work. Spotify is full of playlists to help gear your cognitive state towards concentration and improved memory: you might even be using one while you are reading this very article!

In part due to the popularity of this productivity hack, research on the topic of enhancing cognitive function with music is abundant. However, the wealth of investigation has focused on what happens to cognitive processing after listening to music; there is much less investigation of what occurs during music listening. 

According to studies, music exerts its effects on cognition through its power on emotions. In a recent post, we summarized findings on this intriguing link between emotions and cognitive processing.

Research on the effect of background music on cognitive functions, meaning music that is playing during a task, has shown mixed results. According to a meta-analysis of this body of research, background music can either benefit, negatively effect, or show no effects at all on cognitive processing, depending on the type of music, the type of task as well as the musical background of the listener. 

For example, a study published in 2011 showed that the effects of background music on a memory task differed between musically trained and non-trained individuals. In the study, subjects were asked to perform a task requiring either language processing or visuospatial processing with music playing in the background. According to the results, musicians performed more poorly in the language task but not in the task requiring visuospatial processing while there was background music. Interestingly, individuals who were not musically trained showed no difference in either task with background music. A possible supposition would be that in musically trained individuals, processing of background music for some reason takes up more cognitive capacity, consequently worsening performance in tasks requiring language processing. This however does not happen with non-musicians, and also not in tasks that don’t require language processing. 

...subjects remembered more faces if they had originally been presented with emotionally touching music

Recently, another research group sought to investigate the effects of background music on memory functions. In the study, 54 individuals with no musical training looked at a collection of 300 faces while listening to what the scientists categorized as emotionally touching or joyful music, (examples of emotionally touching and joyful music), the sound of rain, or performed the task in silence. In order to monitor arousal levels in response to the music, the researchers measured the blood pressure and heart rate of the participants. After the session, the researchers probed how many faces the participants remembered seeing.

According to the results of the study, subjects remembered more faces if they had originally been presented with emotionally touching music, than with joyful music or the sound of rain in the background, or without any auditory stimuli. It is proposed that this enhancement of memory encoding occurred because of increased arousal (observed as an increase in heart rate during listening), caused by the more emotionally touching music.

Arousal has also previously been suggested to underlie the cognitive enhancement brought on by music listening.  Prior research into the now infamous “Mozart effect”, a cognitive improvement observed after listening to Mozart, seems to be explained by an increase in arousal, as opposed to due to specific characteristics of Mozart’s music. However, the emotional effects of any music, and for whom Mozart is arousing and for whom not, is most highly dependent on individual differences in musical taste, background and personal history. In terms of boosting cognition with background music, there just isn’t a one size fits all solution!

In summary, there is some evidence that background music can boost cognition, and that memory formation is supported by increased arousal -- the kind that music is effective at triggering. One way to increase arousal and reap its cognitive benefits is to listen to emotionally touching music while processing information. However, there is no guarantee that the same music will work for you as did for the participants in these studies. The best way to find what works for your thinking is to experiment on yourself! Therefore, perhaps next time you are looking for the perfect soundtrack for learning, remember that those minimalist focus playlists might not do the trick -  why not try music that personally moves you instead!




1. Kämpfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2010). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Music, 0305735610376261. DOI:10.1177/0305735610376261

2. Patston, L. L., & Tippett, L. J. (2011). The effect of background music on cognitive performance in musicians and nonmusicians. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 29(2), 173-183. DOI: 10.1525/mp.2011.29.2.173

3. Proverbio, C. A. M., Nasi, V. L., Arcari, L. A., De Benedetto, F., Guardamagna, M., Gazzola, M., & Zani, A. (2015). The effect of background music on episodic memory and autonomic responses: listening to emotionally touching music enhances facial memory capacity. Scientific reports, 5. DOI:  10.1038/srep15219

4. Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological science, 12(3), 248-251. DOI:10.1111/1467-9280.00345