BACKGROUND: Whether listening to background music enhances verbal learning performance is still disputed. In this study we investigated the influence of listening to background music on verbal learning performance and the associated brain activations.
METHODS: Musical excerpts were composed for this study to ensure that they were unknown to the subjects and designed to vary in tempo (fast vs. slow) and consonance (in-tune vs. out-of-tune). Noise was used as control stimulus. 75 subjects were randomly assigned to one of five groups and learned the presented verbal material (non-words with and without semantic connotation) with and without background music. Each group was exposed to one of five different background stimuli (in-tune fast, in-tune slow, out-of-tune fast, out-of-tune slow, and noise). As dependent variable, the number of learned words was used. In addition, event-related desynchronization (ERD) and event-related synchronization (ERS) of the EEG alpha-band were calculated as a measure for cortical activation.
RESULTS: We did not find any substantial and consistent influence of background music on verbal learning. There was neither an enhancement nor a decrease in verbal learning performance during the background stimulation conditions. We found however a stronger event-related desynchronization around 800 - 1200 ms after word presentation for the group exposed to in-tune fast music while they learned the verbal material. There was also a stronger event-related synchronization for the group exposed to out-of-tune fast music around 1600 - 2000 ms after word presentation.
CONCLUSION: Verbal learning during the exposure to different background music varying in tempo and consonance did not influence learning of verbal material. There was neither an enhancing nor a detrimental effect on verbal learning performance. The EEG data suggest that the different acoustic background conditions evoke different cortical activations. The reason for these different cortical activations is unclear. The most plausible reason is that when background music draws more attention verbal learning performance is kept constant by the recruitment of compensatory mechanisms.