Summary: According to a recent study, background classical music has no effect on learning levels in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). However, listening to high-arousal music may have a positive impact on individuals who use music as an emotional regulator, suggesting the need for further research.
Given the lack of effective treatments to counteract cognitive impairment, background music has traditionally been proposed as a possible therapeutic alternative for improving memory-related tasks. Its effect has long been the focus of debate, but this relationship has now been found to be possibly determined by new interindividual parameters, which means that it may be more complex than was previously thought.
This is shown by research led by Marco Calabria, a researcher in the Cognitive Neurolab group of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), who is now considering new experiments.
The initial results of the Mozart effect and memory in patients with cognitive impairment (MEM-COG) study, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, suggest that listening to background classical music while performing memory tasks neither improves nor impairs learning levels among people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
However, listening to more ‘high-arousal’ music was found to have a possible positive effect on people who are accustomed to using music as an emotional regulator in their everyday lives, which suggests there is potential for further hypotheses and research.
The study, which has been published as open access in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was carried out with patients at the neuropsychology unit of Barcelona’s Hospital de Sant Pau, and involved researchers at the hospital, Montreal’s Concordia University and Madrid’s Gregorio Marañón Health Research Institute.
There is no universal effect
“We found no general impact concerning the effect of music in terms of whether it had positive or negative effects on learning in cases of MCI, but we did find that it would be modulated for each individual.
“If people regularly use music as an emotional regulator in their daily life, such as to help them remain calm or for company, they will find it easier to obtain further benefits from music when they have to learn something new,” explained Calabria, who has a PhD in Psychobiology.
The subjects of the study were people with mild amnestic cognitive impairment, i.e. they have memory problems as a result of an onset of neurodegeneration that is more specific in the parts of the brain dealing with aspects of learning and memory.
The experiments consisted of observing 24 photographs of human faces. Participants were instructed to memorize them, and 10 minutes later, they were asked to look at a new series containing the previous 24 images and 24 new ones, in order to attempt to identify the ones that they had already seen.
A classical choice
The first test was performed with the subjects listening to classical music in the information consolidation phase but not in the recovery phase, while in the second exercise it was repeated with the auditory stimulus during both phases. However, no significant differences were observed in terms of results.
Classical music was used in these exercises because “it’s a type of music that falls between relaxing and arousing, and has proven to be the most effective for enhancing memory”. Furthermore, the fact that it is instrumental reduces the interference (that can come from lyrics) with the content that the participants have to learn in the memory task.
A ray of light
However, Calabria’s team wanted to carry out a third experiment using popular music which was considered arousing rather than relaxing, and after a preliminary study, they used an instrumental version of Un rayo de sol (A ray of light), by the group Los Diablos. In that experiment, according to Calabria, the results suggested that “the use of music as a strategy for mood regulation is associated with better performance in memory tasks.”
This finding opens up the possibility of further research to continue exploring the role of interindividual preferences and attitudes towards music among patients with MCI. The group plans to continue the project until late 2024.
During this time, it will investigate whether background music could be more useful in other cognitive domains, such as in attention and concentration in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
The experiments will also involve the use of a new infrared spectroscopy device in the Neuro Lab, one of the recently opened new laboratories at the UOC, which will show the activation at the cerebral level while cognitive processes are taking place.
This will help to determine whether or not there are any alterations in the brain’s modulation, in which areas this takes place, and whether it depends on the type of person studied, regardless of the level of response to music.
In overall terms, this will help to find a type of marker which determines the people most likely to benefit from music in cognitive tasks.
“The more we know about how background music shapes cognitive processes, the better the use we can make of music as a therapeutic tool in cognitive stimulation,” concluded Calabria, an expert in the study of cognitive processes and a member of teaching staff on the UOC’s Master’s Degree in Neuropsychology.
Funding: This research project receives funding from the Ministry of Science and Innovation of the Government of Spain, and contributes to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 3, Good health and well-being.
Background Music and Memory in Mild Cognitive Impairment: The Role of Interindividual Differences
Recent research has shown that background music may improve memory consolidation and retrieval. Nevertheless, in the clinical conditions preceding dementia such as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), there is no current evidence speaking to what effect background music during memory tasks has on impaired cognition.
Across three experiments, we investigated if background music is able to improve memory performance, the most impacted cognitive domain in amnestic MCI.
We tested the effect of background music by using a face recognition memory task in patients with amnestic MCI. In Experiment 1, we tested the effect of background music on memory when it was played solely during an encoding phase. In Experiment 2, we explored effects of background music when played during both encoding and recognition phases. In Experiment 3, we explored the role of musically induced arousal on memory.
The main finding from these three experiments was that background music played during a memory task did not improve or worsen participant performance. However, when exposed to high-arousal music, memory performance was predicted by individual mood regulation. For low-arousal music conditions, there was a negative relationship between rating scores for music pleasantness and performance on the memory task.
Our results suggest that the benefits of background music on memory in individuals with MCI are modulated by interindividual preferences towards music.