Music Valence and Gender Influence Word Recall Task
A person's state of arousal can determine how well their memory functions. This phenomenon is readily apparent when persons experiencing a traumatic event find it difficult to ever escape these memories, memories that can recur unbidden in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Recent research examining the influence of relaxing music found a similar effect, such that relaxing music impairs memory coding and consolidation. Towards the goal expanding on these results, an experiment was conducted that tested the influence of classical (relaxing), rock (stimulating), and no music on word recall performance, but stratified by gender. The results indicated that overall, classical music significantly impaired recall performance when compared to subjects listening to rock music or no music, but rock music provided no benefit. What is novel about these findings is that significant differences in memory performance were found between genders. The performance of women was not attenuated when listening to classical music and benefitted significantly by rock music. By comparison, men did marginally worse when listening to rock music and men listening to classical music were the worst performers of all. These results support the theory that the relaxing or arousing nature of music can affect memory performance, but the nature and magnitude of the effect depends significantly on gender.
Music Valence and Gender Influence Word Recall Task
Interest in how the memory works probably predates recorded history, but science has been making progress in understanding the underlying mechanisms. Researchers have discovered that the circumstances under which memories are encoded can have a significant impact on memory recall performance. As Woloszyn and Ewert (2012) mention, movie directors have long exploited this fact by combining moving music with emotionally charged visual scenes when enticing moviegoers to see their film.
Emotionally moving or stimulating music can elevate the heart rate, induce mild sweating, and increase the rate of breathing (reviewed by Woloszyn and Ewert, 2012). People who are experiencing these symptoms are said to be in a state of increased arousal. Stimulating visual scenes can also induce the same reactions and the combination can be very potent indeed.
Discriminating between the emotional effects of a scene and music can easily be done by presenting either in isolation; however, researchers are interested more in the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. When Woloszyn and Ewert (2012) compared the responses of study subjects to sad or happy pictures, in the presence of sad or happy music, they discovered that sad music tended to render a happy visual scene sad. The dominance of music in influencing emotion was revealed when significantly more participants viewed a sad picture as happy when the music was happy.
Rainey and Larsen (2002) reviewed the research into the mechanism by which music enhances memory tasks, but were unimpressed with the published findings. They considered the theory that music could be acting as a mnemonic device attractive, because music seemed to contain all the necessary ingredients, including creating a structure for learning, increasing the distinctiveness of the memory, and providing additional cues for recall. Rainey and Larsen also argued that a familiar melody would increase mnemonic effectiveness compared to an unfamiliar one.
While conducting their own research into this phenomenon, Rainey and Larsen (2012) tested whether speaking or singing words made a difference during initial learning and found that it did not. However, the 'sung' subjects were significantly faster than their 'spoken' counterparts in relearning the words a week later. They then tested whether visual presentation of words in the absence of music made a difference and discovered that it resulted in fewer trials to success. These findings suggest that singing, a common technique used in grade schools for the purpose of enhancing rote memory, does provide an advantage, but only when repeated over the long-term. The authors mentioned that this result was probably due to participants practicing the word list consciously or unconsciously during the week because of the catchiness of the tunes ("Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Yankee Doodle").
The results of Rainey and Larsen (2002) suggest that the catchiness of a tune has little to no effect on short-term memory tasks, but may have an impact on long-term memory due to practicing. Remembering a memorable scene in a movie, which is often viewed only once and fleetingly, may therefore have little to do with the catchiness of a tune. Instead, memory performance may depend on the emotional valence of a composition. Emotional arousal has been shown to trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which releases a number of hormones into the circulatory system in preparation for fight or flight (reviewed by Rickard, Wong, and Velik, 2012). These hormones in turn influence how well associated events are remembered, which makes sense if a person's survival depends on avoiding the same circumstances in the future. For example, poking a hornet's nest for the first time may not seem like such a bad idea, but the immediate aftermath of this act will be sufficiently instructive that the person, if they survive, will likely never repeat the mistake during their lifetime.
If music can increase arousal, then maybe it can also decrease arousal and impair memory performance. For example, injecting adrenaline into chicks before a memory task improved performance, while injecting an adrenaline antagonist prevented memory performance improvement in test subjects viewing an emotionally-charged visual image (reviewed by Rickard, Wong, and Velik, 2012). These findings suggest that memory formation can be significantly impacted by a person's state of arousal. For this reason, adrenaline antagonists are being tested in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
To examine the effect of relaxing music on memory formation and consolidation, Rickard and colleagues (2012) exposed study subjects to an emotionally charged verbal and visual story and then tested them for changes in affect and recall performance. The affective response to the emotional story in the absence of music was significantly stronger than to a neutral story (p < 0.001, two-way ANOVA); however, memory performance for both the neutral and emotional story was muted in the presence of relaxing music, with the emotional story producing the greatest attenuation (p < 0.001). The effect of relaxing music was so strong that there was no significant difference in memory performance between the neutral and emotional story conditions. The effect of relaxing music could also be seen when the music was introduced during the recall test administered 25-30 minutes after the story ended. These results suggest that a state of reduced arousal can have a significant effect on both memory formation and consolidation, and that relaxing music is an effective tool for modifying memory performance.
The above studies suggest that memory performance is impacted significantly by arousal and thus by the emotional valence of the music. To test whether arousing or relaxing music could impact memory performance during a recall task, we exposed study participants to rock or classical music during learning and recall phases of an unrelated word list. Performance was scored by how many words could be recalled immediately after the learning phase.
Materials and Methods
Study Design and Procedure -- Study participants were selected from college students majoring in psychology. A total of 30 students were enrolled in the study, which were evenly divided by gender. Participants were required to sign a human subjects' consent form before participating in the study. The experimental design met the requirements for a low-risk study as determined by the British Psychological Society and the University of Sussex (Field, 2012).
Prior to the start of the experiment, subjects were divided into three groups: 'Rock', 'Classical', and 'Control'. These three groups represented the auditory environment within which the experiment took place. The rock tune by the band Rush, called "The Main Monkey Business," was played during the learning and recall phase of the experiment. For the classical condition, study subjects were exposed to Mozart's "Symphony No. 40 in G minor." The control group was not exposed to any music during the experiment.
Each member of the group was handed 10 sheets of blank white paper and then instructed to try and remember as many of the words on the list (Appendix) as possible during the recall phase of the experiment. The word list was presented on a screen at the front of the classroom and subjects were given two minutes to memorize the list before it was removed from the screen. The subjects were then asked to write down all the words they could remember during the two-minute recall period.
Statistical Analysis -- Since the data was ratio scale, segregated by gender, and divided into three independent groups (Hoskins, n.d.), it was analyzed using the two-factor independent replication analysis of variance (ANOVA,) provided by the Analysis Toolpak in Microsoft Excel. Sum, average, variance, degrees of freedom, F factor, and significance are provided by the software program. Alpha was set to 0.05. The student's t test, two-tailed, unequal variance (Microsoft Excel), was also used to compare recall performance between groups and gender-defined subgoups.