Oh oh “studies show that music can impair performance in a wide variety of cognitive and behavioural tasks… in contrast to previous research showing beneficial effects of music exposure on autobiographical recall in older adults…”


Previous research has shown that music exposure can impair a wide variety of cognitive and behavioural performance…

  • A significant reduction in source memory was observed following music exposure,
  • a reduction that was more pronounced for older adults than for younger adults.
  • This pattern was significantly correlated with performance on an executive binding task. The exposure to music appeared to interfere with binding in working memory, worsening source recall.

…music and noise, auditory stimuli activating the phonological loop, are likely to affect other working memory processes and leave fewer cognitive resources for binding source information. … music exposure interferes with cognitive and behavioural … Because sounds like music are processed obligatorily (i.e., we can close our eyes but not our ears), they can easily interfere with other working-memory processes

Source memory may be defined as “the episodic source from which a specific item was acquired … It can also be expanded to include any aspects of spatiotemporal or affective contextual features that were present during the encoding of an event. Source memory contributes to the phenomenological experience characterizing episodic reliving…illustrating its importance for episodic recollection. It is also found to be particularly sensitive to ageing.

Indeed, a substantive body of literature suggests that source memory is more affected by ageing than is item memory.  Older adults may have no difficulty remembering that a particular event occurred but they may be less likely to recollect the source, such as where or when the event took place or how they acquired their knowledge of the. Crucially, the literature tends to suggest that this age-related source memory deterioration may be attributed to executive dysfunction.

…This decline is generally found to be associated with poor performance on frontal-lobe-dependent, executive function tests.  The relationship between age-related source memory deterioration and executive dysfunction has been demonstrated in a literature review

One prominent executive account of the origins of source memory variation after music exposure is binding…The establishment of such associations is presumably carried out by a binding process in working memory that associates and integrates different characteristics of an event into one coherent episode…Because background music is an auditory stimulus, it is likely to activate the phonological loop, leaving fewer resources for other working memory components such as the executive control system. This may, in turn, worsen cognitive and behavioural performance. Our assumption fits a body of experimental literature that shows that music interferes with a wide variety of cognitive and behavioural tasks. For instance, music exposure was found to interfere with item recognition and to impair efficiency in surgeons learning a new procedure in the presence of background music. Music exposure has also been shown to negatively influence such activities as driving and .

To summarize, music, as an auditory stimulus, is likely to activate the phonological loop, leaving fewer resources for the central executive system, which is responsible for mediating the binding of source features

… unlike music, noise is not processed in the phonological loop and suggested that for this reason, it does not interfere with working memory performance. In line with this possibility, subsequent research has found that visual serial recall is attenuated by exposure to varying tones but not when the tones are simply repeated. Taken together, these findings suggest that the amount of acoustic change matters, with changing tones (i.e., music) using more of the capacity of the phonological loop than continuous noise.

…older adults seem to be more sensitive to music interference than younger adults…

More precisely, studies suggest that music listening is an important leisure activity for promoting emotional well-being, evoking feelings of pleasure and relaxation in older adults, as well as enhancing identity, belonging, and agency. These results, showing how music exposure can modulate emotions in older adults, mean that we cannot rule out the possibility that the deterioration in source memory is due to stronger musical emotions in older adults.

Like the older adults, music exposure seems to interfere with binding in younger adults, worsening their source memory. Noise exposure, however, does not seem to interfere with binding in the latter participants since no significant correlations were detected between the two performances.

… although music exposure may enhance their well-being, it may also negatively impact their cognitive functioning. Our data suggest that music exposure decreases cognitive performance in older subjects, a finding of particular interest for everyday activities such as driving. Listening to music whilst driving is a common activity, but the current results suggest that such exposure may decrease information processing in older adults and, consequently, negatively influence their driving performance and safety. This assumption is in line with a study showing that, when listening to music, older drivers required a louder external warning sound (e.g., car horn or police siren) than do younger adults (Slawinski & MacNeil, 2002). Other work shows associations between possession of “no claims” on motor insurance and a preference for silence over music in older drivers.

One could argue that the correlation between the binding and source tasks should be attributed to their similarity, as both tasks required association between items and their spatial locations. Although sharing common features, the two tasks differ significantly from one another since the binding task required working memory (responses were required after exposure of each grid), whereas the source task required long-term memory (responses were required after exposure of the 12 grids). Furthermore, if the both tasks were so similar, significant correlations would be expected between binding and the three auditory modalities (i.e., silence, noise, and music), which was not the case. However, to eliminate any such concerns, future replications should use a wide variety of binding modalities, such as auditory binding. Another issue to be investigated by future replications is the use of a broader range of music, especially unfamiliar pieces. This to avoid the possibility that the older group might be distracted by the familiar “Four Seasons” opus.

Finally, while we controlled for the participants’ musical training, we did not control for their familiarity with Vivaldi’s music. Knowledge about music might interfere with its processing, with, for instance, participants being tempted to sing Vivaldi’s music during the recognition phase. The music might also cue previous exposure. As older adults are likely to have more musical knowledge about classical music than younger adults, future replications should control for this bias by collecting information about such previous knowledge, which can then regressed out during analyses.

To summarize, studies show that music can impair performance in a wide variety of cognitive and behavioural tasks… in contrast to previous research showing beneficial effects of music exposure on autobiographical recall in older adults … music exposure has a negative impact on their source memory.


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