Psychology: Music Influence on Cognition

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2012
22 Pages, Grade: 2:1
Sandra Larsen (Author)




The current study examines the influence of music on cognitive ability. Participants performed a series of maze tasks and Ravens Matrices tests under variable conditions, accompanied by music classified as either stimulating or sedative. The musical pieces chosen were both classical: Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ (sedative) and Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ (stimulating). There were 60 participants in total (N-60) out of whom 37 were females and 23 male participants. These formed four different condition groups, each with 15 participants. The frustration (F) group, with unsolvable mazes, were played either sedative or stimulating music. Likewise, the Non-frustration (NF) group, with solvable mazes, was also played either of the music types. It was predicted that sedative music would have a more relaxing effect on participants after a frustration condition, compared to the stimulating music. Furthermore, as predicted, both music styles reduced anxiety levels, corresponding to better scores on the Ravens Matrices. The Ravens Matrices mean scores were higher for the frustration condition, indicating that frustrating situations can actually produce better IQ results if combined with the right music type. The findings indicate a strong connection between music and cognitive performance.


Music is an important factor in social relationships, and it can be an important part of how people define themselves and create identities (MacDonald, Hargreaves, & Miell, 2002). Its capacity to affect emotions is well-known: music can cheer, sadden, frustrate, or calm. Previous research on the effects of music on intellectual ability, emotional responsiveness, and cognitive behaviour will be briefly discussed below in order to offer a background context for the current research aims.

Researchers (see for instance Hallam & Price, 1998; Milliman, 1982) have been drawn to investigating how consumers will respond when different types of music are being played in the background. Nowadays in most supermarkets, banks, clothing stores, and many other places, some kind of music is being played in the background. One of the first studies on music’s influence on consumer behavior, by North and Hargreaves (1997), observed customers in Sports Division (a sports retail chain). Even though customers admitted later in their questionnaires that music had no influence on their shopping experience, their answers showed that they enjoyed the shop atmosphere much more when the music being played in the background was upbeat, claiming that it was cool and modern. Whilst on the contrary, they felt their experience was boring and dull when slow rock music had been playing in the background (North & Hargreaves, 1997).

Other related studies on consumer behaviour have discovered that music can influence how long a shopper will remain in the store (Milliman, 1982), how long they are willing to stay on the phone line (North, Hargreaves, & McKendrick, 1999a; Ramos, 1993), how long it takes to persuade customers to go after a certain product (Areni & Kim, 1993; North, Hargreaves, & McKendrick, 1999b), how long it takes to make customers go to a certain department of the store (North & Hargreaves, 1996), how much customers are willing to spend (North & Hargreaves, 1998), and the effectiveness of promotion (North & Hargreaves, 1997; North & Hargreaves, 2003).

A study on music and consumer behaviour by North and Hargreaves’s (2004) investigated the influence of music at bank branches and bars. Again, the idea behind this study was to see how people behave if music is playing in banks, and what their reaction would be to certain types of music. In this case the music types were either famous classical pieces or so-called ‘easy listening’ songs. The experimenters were interested in which one of the songs from the two groups would affect people in a more positive or even negative way. In the end it was found that customers liked the music being played, especially classical music, which they seemed to find more positive mood-inducing than easy-listening music or when no music was playing in the background (North & Hargreaves, 2004).

Another line of research has shown music to be useful in many aspects of health and well­being, including boosting one’s mood, improving one’s physical health and desires, and affecting what some call inner energy fields (see for example North & Hargreaves, 2004). Findings from this research inform the present study by confirming that music consistently affects people both physically and psychologically. Standley’s (1995) meta-survey of research in the field showed that it was possible to use music for healing purposes in dental and medical fields, especially when procedures involved pain and anxiety. Similarly, a recent systematic review by Nilsson (2008) found that in the vast majority of studies, music had a positive effect on reducing pain and anxiety in health care settings - even though the exact nature of how it worked was not well understood. Hamel (2001), for instance, showed that music had a marked effect on the reduction of anxiety levels in subjects who were waiting to undergo a major medical operation. Similarly, a study by Koch et al. (1998) found that when calming sedative music was played in a medical operation setting, patients showed considerably less need for analgesics for their pain.

Many people use music to help achieve a positive mood and state of well-being (North & Hargreaves, 2003). Kemper and Danhauer (2005) found that in both adults and children, music could ease worry, and provide a sense of comfort and relaxation. Research (see, for instance, Beck, 1991) has shown that music has a proven therapeutic effect for treating patients with cancer-related pain. Special healing methods and techniques have been developed using music frequency therapy to help people cure certain physical and mental illnesses. Different types of music therapy have been researched on subjects with depression with favourable results; for example, a study by Hanser & Thompson (1994) showed music- based stress reduction therapies had significant effects on mood and self-esteem in depressed adults over an eight-month period.

Also other research has looked at music’s influence on individuals while performing different tasks like creativity measurement (Kaltsounis, 1973), intelligence tests (Smith & Morris, 1977), and maze performance (Borling, 1981). The majority of these studies have also observed the influence of music during emotional states of anxiety, like for example during childbirth (Chetta, 1981), at the dentist (Clark, McCorkle & Williams, 1981), and often during examinations (Borling, 1981). In most cases the results showed that the presence of any music can either have a detrimental effect on anxiety reduction, or on the contrary enhance one’s performance (Caspy et al., 1988).

Certain types of music have been shown in various studies to also have a calming or sedative effect, which is especially relevant to the present study. These calming and restorative effects of music apply not only to stressful medical scenarios like those above, but also to more common daily stress: studies have shown that music can have a marked calming effect on subjects with high stress levels, for instance people working in busy and hectic environments (see Brennan & Charnetski, 2000). This study showed that among staff members of a busy and noisy newspaper environment, stress levels can be reduced with the presence of any music, which was suggested as leading to a stronger immune system and therefore less illnesses (Brennan & Charnetski, 2000). Music can also have an effect of workers’ performance.

A study by Lesiuk (2005) on computer software programmers found that subjects who worked with positive mood-inducing music performed better in terms of work quality and quantity than those with no music. Meanwhile, Hallam and Price (1998), in research focusing on schoolchildren, found that calming background music had the effect of improving performance in mathematical tasks, especially among those with behavioural difficulties. The study found that calming music created an optimum level of arousal that allowed the children to concentrate on the math tasks. The researchers also found that other types of music could have a contrary effect whereby concentration was disrupted . This was unusual and unexpected and found no real support by other previous empirical data conducted on similar matters. It was left as an option to be further investigated in the future to see whether negative emotions are related to individual human charactertics or music type (Hallam and Price, 1998).

On a similar note and rare occasion other findings have reported for music such as stimulating, also possibly producing stressful emotions. Namely, the question of whether music can add to feelings of worry occurring prior to an upcoming exam was observed in a study done by Smith and Morris (1977). They tested students individually under three different conditions: stimulating music, calming music, and no music. Students performed a counting task while listening to these music styles one after another. In the end it was concluded that students did best with no music; however, calming music helped, while stimulating music tended to have quite a negative effect which interfered with concentration and increased stress levels (Smith & Morris, 1977).

Continuing on the positive note, Hallam and Price cite a previous study in which calming background music (pieces by Mozart) had remarkable physical effects on school children who were previously unmanageable, including changes in body temperature, breathing rate and blood pressure (Hallam & Price 1998: 88). Although the exact mechanics of these processes are difficult to determine, and further research is recommended, still there is very strong support for the calming effects of music on people in stressful situations.

Moving closer to a similar topic as the current study and which could be one the more interesting areas of research on music’s psychological effects. It is namely the connection between music and intellectual performance. Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky (1993) investigated the effects of playing a Mozart Sonata when a participant was performing a standard intelligence test (the Stanford-Binet IQ test). Their findings showed that by listening to Mozart truly did improve the participant scores by an undeniable amount of points. Further supporting the positive influence and reputation classical music has proven to have over people. Since then it was titled and became known as the controversial “Mozart Effect”. (Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky, 1993). Similar studies were conducted to follow up on Rauscher et al.’s findings, with similar conclusions: that listening to Mozart, or similar classical music, showed improved results on learning, measured by task performance (for example, see Shaw & Bodner 1999; Schellenberg 2004; Jausovec et al. 2006; Jones & Estel 2007.) Thompson, Schellenberg, and Husain (2001) conducted a study to investigate the Mozart claims, and they found that while subjects’ test performances did improve, they concluded it was because the music created an arousal of their mood, rather than any properties specific to the music. In other words, the music had a stimulating effect on the subjects, which is something the present study intends to further explore.

Finally, Caspy, Peleg, Schlam & Goldberg (1988) and closest to the present study, was concerned with music’s influence on performance deficit during frustration conditions. The study looked at performance abilities following a frustration state and whether listening to sedative or stimulating music, or no music at all, has different influences on participants’ performance and stress levels. It was hypothesised that sedative and stimulating music have different effects on performance decrement. Forty-five students were given five pencil-and- paper maze tests; the latter four of which could not be completed (i.e. a frustration condition). Then, while the next tests were being prepared, they listened to music by Dvorak (sedative) or Beethoven (stimulating), before attempting Raven’s Matrices tests. It was found, first, that performance declines following frustration. It was also found that the stimulating music did not tend to decrease performance deficit; sedative music, meanwhile, did reduce performance decrement (Caspy et al., 1988).

Altogether there is an impressive body of research on the psychological effects of music in countless scenarios and on a wide range of subjects, most of it pointing to the powerful effects music has in our lives. Much of this research has focused on the connections between listening to music and emotional response, intellectual performance, and cognitive behaviour. The present study intends to use this previous research, much of which also used classical music, as a foundation.


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Psychology: Music Influence on Cognition
South Bank University London  (LSBU-AHS)
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Music influence on cognitive ability (Ravens Matrices IQ test) after manipulated maze tasks.
psychology, music, influence, cognition
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Sandra Larsen (Author), 2012, Psychology: Music Influence on Cognition , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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