Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Effects of Music on Short-Term Memory Recall

This is my 2012 Science Fair Project.  Thank you to all the Digital Diner readers who participated in this study.  I could not have done it with out you.  If anyone has any questions, just post a comment or send me an email.


The Effects of Music on Short-Term Memory Recall


Music has been found to have positive effects on short term memory recall. I wanted to see if playing music during memorization and then playing the same music during the recall would increase the items that a person can remember. There have been many studies on music and its effect on memory, but I have not found one where they repeat the same music during the recall period.


Repeating music will be better than just silence. Many studies have shown that music is a stress reducer, making it easier to study and remember things. Repeating music during recall will have even more of an effect on people's memory, if it is the same music they listened to during their memorizing time.



  • 30 seconds to see each tray.
  • 9 items on each tray.
  • 30 seconds of music.
  • Same music during memorizing and recall


  • There is different music in each trial.
  • There are different items on each tray.


  • Number of items recalled.
  • Time it takes to recall items.



  • You remember 5-9 items in your short term memory1.
  • Short term memory is used for storing not processed thoughts or items such as the fact that the 5th house down the street has light blue flowers.


  • Many tests show that music is linked with studying techniques, ways to remember items, and tray tests, but no other tests that I have seen do repeating music2.
  • Studies have come to the conclusion that classical music helps recall. Rock music sometimes helps too, because the music is so distracting you work to block out the music pushing it all away and putting more thought into your answer3. Which works better? That's what I'm here to find out.


  • Many studies have shown, music increases effectiveness of studying habits, and testing results.
  • Music is found to reduce stress, allowing it to be easier to study.


"What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye." said Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of California, Davis4.


1) Trial #1 (Classical)

  • Rubics Cube
  • Small stuffed animal
  • Book
  • Glue Stick
  • Pencil
  • Scissors
  • Binder Clip
  • Arm Brace
  • mini-zebra

2) Trial #2 (Silence)

  • Knitting needles
  • Chalk
  • Wire
  • Paint Brush
  • Battery
  • Eraser
  • Rock
  • Bandana
  • Glasses

3) Trial #3 (Theme Song)

  • Ruler
  • Sticker
  • Business card
  • Marker
  • Tape
  • Mints
  • Glue
  • The Mini-Yellow Submarine
  • Garden Scissors

4) Theme Song (Mr. Ed Theme Song)

5)Classical (Symphonic Dance No. 3 Op. 64 No 3 by Edvard Grieg)


7) Camera


  1. Recruit and tell participants about the experiment.
  2. Set up a Skype call with the participants, and share your screen.
  3. Show participants a picture of the first of three trays for thirty seconds, with nine items on the tray (items specified in materials). Have the same music playing while they memorize and while they write the items that they remember down. The music is, Symphonic Dance by Edvard Grieg.
  4. Time how long it takes for the subject to recall and write down the items.
  5. Ask for the number of recalled items.
  6. Write down the data: the subject name, the number of items remembered, the time it took to recall the items, and the type of music played.
  7. Repeat two more times with different trays and music. The next trial would have no music, and the last have the Mr. ED Theme Song.
  8. Repeat for approximately 30 people and analyze.


The results show a big difference in the recall between types of music.


Graph #1 shows individual data for the 22 subjects (aged from 10-82), with a range of 2-8 for the number of recalled items.


Graph #2, a bar chart, shows the average number of recalled items for each trial. The average number of recalled items while listening to classical music is 6.59. The average number of recalled items for the silence trial was 6.23, and 4.95 for the theme song trial. The subjects recalled the least while listening to the theme song.
Graph #3 is a histogram of the number of recalled items. The three trials are represented in different colors. Most subjects recalled seven items during the silence trial, which was to be expected, since other studies have shown that the most common amount of items to remember was seven. Also, the histogram confirms that the subjects did the worst while listening to the theme song.


Graph #4 recorded the average amount of time the subjects took to recall the items in each trials. The classical average was 44.77 seconds. The average time for silence was 47.73 seconds and 46.23 seconds on average for the theme song. The average recall time was similar between all the trials.
Graph #5 is a scatter plot that compares recall time to the number of items recalled. There probably is not a correlation between the recall time and the number of recalled items. However, there may be a trend, where the subjects who recalled the most took the least amount of time.


Graph #6 shows the change from classical music to silence (Trial 1 # of recalled items – Trial 2 # of recalled items). eight subjects' number of recalled items increased during the classical music trial, compared to silence trial. Four subjects remembered one item less and ten subjects number of recalled items stayed the same.
Graph #7 shows the change between the sound track and silence (Trial 3 # of recalled items – Trial 2 # of recalled items). Four subjects' number of recalled items got better by one and fourteen subjects' number of recalled items stayed the same or got worse by up to four. Four subjects' number of recalled items stayed the same. The theme song trial number of recalled items was much worse than the silence trial.


The subjects recalled the least items while the theme song was playing. During the classical music trial, the subjects recalled the most, and some commented on its “soothing” nature. Others commented that the theme song was “distracting”or “made you forget what you had memorized.”
If I could redo the experiment or add more data, I would change the order of the trials by mixing up the songs and trays. It is possible that the order of the trays affected the results, since the difficulty to guess what the items were was not controlled. Also, the order of the music may have made a difference, along with the possibility that some subjects' performances may have changed over time.


  1. Http://clearinghouse.missouriwestern.edu/manuscripts/230.php
  2. http://www.livescience.com/5327-music-memory-connection-brain.html
  3. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090223221230.htm
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short-term_memory

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