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You are here: McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind > Publications > Turn Off the Music! Music Impairs Visual Associative Memory Performance in Older Adults

Sarah Reaves, Brittany Graham, Jessica Grahn, Parissa Rabannifard, and Audrey Duarte (2014)

Turn Off the Music! Music Impairs Visual Associative Memory Performance in Older Adults

The Gerontological Society of America, 00:1-10.

Purpose of the Study: Whether we are explicitly listening to it or not, music is prevalent in our environment. Surprisingly, little is known about the effect of environmental music on concurrent cognitive functioning and whether young and older adults are differentially affected by music. Here, we investigated the impact of background music on a concurrent paired associate learning task in healthy young and older adults.

Design and Methods: Young and older adults listened to music or to silence while simultaneously studying face–name pairs. Participants’ memory for the pairs was then tested while listening to either the same or different music. Participants also made subjective ratings about how distracting they found each song to be.

Results: Despite the fact that all participants rated music as more distracting to their performance than silence, only older adults’ associative memory performance was impaired by music. These results are most consistent with the theory that older adults’ failure to inhibit processing of distracting task-irrelevant information, in this case background music, contributes to their memory impairments.

Implications: These data have important practical implications for older adults’ ability to perform cognitively demanding tasks even in what many consider to be an unobtrusive environment.


aging, music, cognitive function, memory