The Science of Music and Memory

Dr. Pinjing Zhao uses music in his organic chemistry class to help students remember the information. But this phenomenon isn’t new: science has been studying the benefits of music and memory recall.

I couldn’t believe my eyes — or my ears. Was I really sitting in an 8 a.m. organic chemistry lecture watching the video for “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge? I couldn’t be, could I?

Imagine my surprise when the first slide of the lecture was titled “Theme Music for Lecture 02.” Even more surprising was the fact the song tied back effectively to the topic of the day’s lecture on periodic table families.

Clever, witty and memorable, the idea got me curious: could this unique practice help me remember the lecture info later on?

Chances are all of us have read an article about study tips sometime throughout our college career. At the very least, we have scrolled past one on social media.

The closer exams creep, the more intense the pressure of test performance is, sending many of us searching for any and every tip for retaining the mountain of information required.

It may surprise you that most study advice we’ve come to live by goes against the findings of scientists in the past few decades.

One such topic is the use of music when studying. Plenty of lists of study tips frown upon background music of any form and, instead, recommend an empty and silent space.

Others suggest music playing softly in the background can be beneficial, but only if it is classical or strictly instrumental.

As someone who can’t stand being without music for too long of a time, I have opted for instrumental soundtrack playlists during my studying. The only problem I run into there, however, is I seem to always end up wanting to watch the movies more than I want to study. A “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Lord of The Rings” marathon is way better than studying any day.

In the case of my organic chemistry, however, would a playlist of “lecture theme music” help my recall of the topics? Or would it simply become another distraction hindering my progress?

When I sat down with my CHEM 341 professor, Dr. Pinjing Zhao, to discuss his innovative teaching method, he seemed hopeful that the answer would be yes.

“Some (former students) have actually told me that when they heard certain music, it makes them think back to the topic. So I do think it helps.” Dr. Zhao continued, stating those students who completed the extra credit assignment of finding alternate songs to go with each topic and writing a short paragraph as to why their choices were a good fit helped students focus on the topics in a new way and further cement the knowledge associated.

Lutz Jäncke, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Zurich, seems to agree. In his 2008 paper published in Journal of Biology, Jäncke cites a study conducted by Stefan Koelsch on music and recall of specific information. In Koelsch’s study, volunteers were given a list of target words with either a musical or sentence associated with it. Those given the musical “primers” were able to recall the target word much quicker and more reliably than those who did not.

It goes on to add the memories are more tightly “latched” in the memory as it remains unbothered by changes in volume, instrumentation, etc. due to the memory’s abstract nature. Other studies have also given hope to the effectiveness of memory recall in the elderly, including those with such diseases as dementia, and have been published in publications like the Journal of Music Therapy. This isn’t very surprising when you consider how many of us probably still remember the lyrics of the “Bone Song” from Hannah Montana as well as the memories attached to growing up with it.

Even with recent science on his side, how did Dr. Zhao decide to implement music as a tool in his organic chemistry classroom?

Dr. Zhao’s creative spark came in 2010 when a former colleague from Cornell University gave a presentation on education and career preparation to the NDSU chemistry department.

In the presentation, his colleague mentioned his practice of playing a music video (not necessarily related to the topics) right before class, so by the time the music died down it was time to begin.

“I thought it was pretty cool, and then I thought a lot about how to take it one step further to actually make some connections,” Dr. Zhao said. Zhao first began “testing the waters” on his new idea during his 2012 CHEM 341 class. It was deemed successful enough for him to continue on the same way ever since. He’s now planning to start the same practice at the beginnings of his CHEM 342 lectures next semester.

Studying for exams is far from being considered one of the “fun and enjoyable” parts of college, but it’s a necessary evil. In the scramble to retain course information, any help is worth a shot if it has the possibility of easing the pain of the unpleasant ordeal.

So consider jumping online and making yourself a playlist or two. With the right songs to tie class topics to, you may very well find your memory recall is sharper and your study experience more enjoyable. After all, what have you got to lose?

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