Music May Help Combat Memory Problems During Aging

Participants remembered words better, with fewer "false-positive" responses, when listening to music during a memory exercise.

As the population ages, people are working for more years before retirement. At the same time, the cognitive requirements of the work we do are increasing. Are our brains up for the challenge? Could music offer an easy, enjoyable way to combat cognitive decline associated with normal aging?
We are all facing some decline in cognitive functioning as we age. Perhaps the most common ailment that people associate with aging is that of poor memory. With age, it gets more and more difficult to recall past events. This type of memory is called episodic, referring specifically to memory for events, where, when and with whom they took place. Episodic memory is explicit, meaning that it contains information that you can state out loud. Another form of memory that individuals have is implicit, referring to knowledge that is difficult to put into words but which we still know and remember, such as how to swim or ride a bike. 

Why does aging target episodic memory? Researchers suggest that the frontal lobes of the brain may be to blame. As we age, changes take place that make it harder for this part of the brain to support the functions it’s associated with; problems encoding information into memory, and particularly episodic memory, are associated with declined activity in the frontal lobes and the hippocampus. Therefore, we are less able to imprint information into our memory as we age, and because of this, it’s difficult to remember.

What if we could somehow help our brains encode information more efficiently, despite age-related changes in the frontal lobes? 

The effects of music on cognitive functioning have been a topic of interest for decades. Sadly, the findings on the effects are mixed with some studies showing a decline in cognitive functioning because of background music and some showing the opposite. In terms of positive effects, it has been shown that listening to emotionally touching music boosted memory for faces. In addition, a lot of work on supporting memory functions with music has been conducted with individuals with Alzheimer’s, showing promising findings of enhanced memory with the help of music. But what about the memory decline associated with normal aging? Is music of any use there?

One group of scientists investigated whether music could be used to support memory encoding of verbal material in healthy older adults with no dementia, and whether this cognitive boost could be seen as a change in frontal lobe function.1

To investigate brain functions during the task, the researchers employed a rather new neuroimaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). The technique detects the flow of blood in the brain, which provides a way to investigate changes of activity in different parts of the brain. This technique relies on the assumption that the more active a brain region is, the more oxygenated blood it requires. The same type of information can be obtained with an fMRI, but the fNIRS technique does not require the patient to lie still inside a magnet, which makes it easier to conduct tasks.
In the study, sixteen older adults, aged on average 65 years, performed a task requiring memorization of 42 words, either with jazz music playing in the background or in silence. After the memorization phase, participants were shown the previously presented 42 words mixed together with 42 new words. For each word, the participants were asked to indicate whether they had seen the word before, and whether it was presented with music playing in the background or not.


Results suggest music may provide a rich and supportive context for memory encoding of new material


According to the results, participants remembered words better in the music condition: the memory performance for words encoded in the music condition was above chance, and in the silent condition below chance. Furthermore, there were fewer “false alarms” for words presented in the music condition than the silent condition, meaning that the subjects reported remembering more words that were not actually presented in the silent condition than in the music condition. Additionally, the subjects reported that they remembered hearing words in a musical context more than in the silent one. In summary, background music seemed to support memory encoding of new words.
The results from the fNIRS measurement showed an intriguing phenomenon:  during memory encoding with background music, the prefrontal cortex seemed to be less active than during the silent phase. The researchers hypothesize that music may decrease the need for the help of the prefrontal cortex in organizing information in memory encoding. In others words, music made memory encoding more efficient, requiring less involvement of the prefrontal cortex.
Thus, music may provide a rich and supportive context for memory encoding of new material. This context may be especially useful for older adults and individuals with dementia. Future research into the specific neural effects of background music on memory processes is needed to understand exactly why music has this facilitating effect. Until then, you can always experiment on yourself. Try adding music to your learning environment and see whether you get a extra boost for your frontal lobes!

Written by Ketki Karanam & Marko Ahtisaari



1. Ferreri, L., Bigand, E., Perrey, S., Muthalib, M., Bard, P., & Bugaiska, A. (2014). Less effort, better results: how does music act on prefrontal cortex in older adults during verbal encoding? An fNIRS study. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 301. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00301