1. EFFECTS OF CLASSICAL MUSIC ON TEST SCORES 1
The Effects of Listening to Classical Music on Students’ Test Scores
Slippery Rock University
2. EFFECTS OF CLASSICAL MUSIC ON TEST SCORES 2
Test performance among all age groups of students has always been a dynamic area of study
among psychology and communication research. Researchers are constantly battling to find the
best methods of instruction in the most prominent areas of interest. More recently in the
communication field, however, researchers are beginning to put an emphasis on the actual act of
taking the test (information recall), rather than the preparation (information intake). Can
academic or spatial performance be affected by a student’s surroundings? More specifically, can
the presence of a certain type of music better or worsen a student’s overall test scores? This
study examines the effects of listening to Mozart’s Sonata K. 448, as opposed to silence during a
testing period. The results of the experiment conclude that listening to the classical piece while
taking a test may have had an effect on the students’ scores, although it was not statistically
significant. This analysis questions whether there is a direct correlation between listening to
music and test scores, or if listening to music simply affects the test-taking environment and
students’ overall mood.
Keywords: Mozart, information intake, information recall, effects of music, test
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The Effects of Listening to Classical Music on Students’ Test Scores
The effects of background noise on the performance of human participants has always
been a dynamic area of study; from loud noises to classical music to silence, communication
researchers have recently been fascinated with the subject (Sharma, 2011; Schellenberg, Nakata,
Hunter, & Tomoto, 2007; Hallam & Price, 1998). Researchers have previously analyzed how
different styles of music can affect a research participant’s abilities in regards to both academic
and practical situations (Furnham & Bradley, 1997; Sharma, 2011). Many studies have focused
on how the presence of classical music during information intake affects students’ ability to
recall said information. In other words, students listen to music while studying or learning, and
are then assessed in silence (Olsen, 1995; Jäncke & Sandmann, 2010; Schellenberg et al., 2007).
The purpose of this study, however, is to examine the effects of listening to classical music in the
background during information recall, or the actual testing period. How does the music affect
students’ ability to summon information previously learned, and subsequently affect their test
scores? Researchers, professors, teachers, and students alike may be able to benefit from
longitudinal findings that either prove or disprove the notion that listening to background music
helps or hinders a student’s grade in the long run.
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Multiple studies have been conducted regarding the effects that music has on subjects’
mood and attitude towards a given task (Olsen, 1995; Goldenberg, Floyd, & Moyer, 2013;
Hallam & Price, 1998). One study in particular by Olsen (1995) found that silence, as opposed to
background music, had a more profound effect on the recall of information. He found that this
was due to the fact that students who were made to study in silence perceived the task at hand as
more serious or important. Students who studied in the presence of background music were more
relaxed in doing so, and their scores were lower than those of the control group.
Other studies have concluded moderately similar results when subjects were exposed to
music during information intake. For example, Jäncke & Sandmann (2010) conducted a study in
which participants were verbally taught a subject while listening to various types of background
music, while a second group was taught the same material without the music. The study
concluded that there was no direct relationship between the type of music and the performance of
the test subjects when asked to recall the material. Despite the various tempos and sounds, the
research participants’ scores were all consistent. In general, it seems as though most research has
pointed to the fact that each student is different, and a student’s personality may have an effect
on their levels of distractibility; an extroverted student may choose to study with music on, while
an introverted student may choose to do so in silence (Furnham, & Bradley, 1997). This notion,
that different students react differently to musical stimuli, was constant across the majority of
similar studies (Schellenberg et al., 2007; Goldenberg et al., 2013; Hallam & Price, 1998).
While these two particular studies didn’t find a statistically significant relationship
between the presence of music and cognitive performance, an experiment by Schellenberg et al.
(2007) found a correlation between different types of music and students’ IQ scores and drawing
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abilities. Part of the experiment was done with clusters of Japanese and Canadian students. In
both cases, students were divided between two groups – one that listened to up-tempo classical
music, and one that listened to slower classical music. Both groups were then given an IQ test.
The study found that students who listened to the faster music had higher IQ scores. A second
faction of the experiment examined the difference between two groups of children, one that
listened to well-known children songs and one that listened to classical music. After the songs
were done, the students were prompted to have a period of drawing time. The students who
listened to the familiar songs drew for longer amounts of time and their drawings proved to be
more creative and energetic, characteristics that were operationally defined by the researchers.
Schellenberg et al. (2007) go on to discuss the possibility that the music didn’t necessarily
influence the participants’ IQ scores or drawing abilities, but rather their moods. They found that
different types and speeds of music elicited emotional reactions in both the Japanese and
Canadian students, which caused them to perform differently.
Classical Music and Levels of Anxiety
Why did the different types of music elicit different reactions? Researchers dug further
into the idea as the decades progressed. Goldenberg et al. (2013) examined a possible correlation
between music and anxiety levels during a testing period. Participants in their study were
randomly separated into groups that could listen to music while taking an exam, a control group
that would take the exam per usual, and a third group that could choose between the two
situations. As part of the experiment’s debriefing, students were asked for input on how they
preferred to be tested. The results showed that students in all three groups largely preferred to
listen to music. Goldenberg et al. (2013) found that students who listened to music during the
testing period reported a calmer disposition, although this perceived notion that anxiety levels
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were lowered did not translate to higher test scores in the long run. While the hypothesis that
listening to music would lower levels of anxiety during the test was not confirmed, the fact that
the study examined the effects of listening to music during the testing period was a step in the
Although listening to classical music during a testing period didn’t seem to directly affect
participants’ test scores, it did seem to potentially affect other attributes of the students, such as
emotional state, distractibility, and perceived anxiety levels - as opposed to actual, operationally
defined manifestations of ‘anxiety,’ such as an inability to be still and cold or sweaty hands
(Goldenberg et al., 2013; Furnham & Bradley, 1997).
Classical Music and Students with Learning Disabilities
Researchers have additionally expanded their research to the effects of listening to
classical music on students with learning disabilities, or high levels of distractibility, as noted by
teachers or instructors (Spudic & Somervill, 1978; Hallam & Price, 1998). Spudic and Somervill
(1978) explored the effects of background music on arithmetic performance. Participating
students, ages 11 to 18, were separated into low, medium, and high distractibility groups by
teacher recommendation. Groups solved arithmetic problems while being exposed to three
different types of background music: exciting music, calming music, and no music. As expected,
medium-distractibility level students performed better than high-distractibility students, and low-
level distractibility students performed the best out of all of the groups at the same age levels.
However, the music was not determined to have any significant influence on the students’
activity levels or their arithmetic performance.
More recently, Hallam and Price (1998) conducted a somewhat similar study using
students aged 9 and 10 who attended a school for children with emotional or behavioral
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difficulties, and who exhibited disruptive behaviors such as aggression, tantrums, over-activity,
etc. Students were prompted to complete math problems during periods of no music, and periods
of listening to calming, classical music. The results showed that the performance and behavior of
the children improved with the introduction of music. Each session demonstrated a positive
correlation between listening to classical music and performance, but the effect was not
statistically significant in every case. Although these findings suggest that there may be a
positive, direct relationship between mathematics performance and background music, Hallam
and Price (1998) go on to suggest that perhaps the music didn’t help the children perform better,
but rather it put them in a better mood, which made them more open to learning and focusing on
the task at hand. Hallam and Price (1998) also expanded their study to students in mainstream
classrooms, where they found another positive correlation between listening to classical music
and performance. In this portion of their experiment, however, they found that this heightened
performance was only due to an increased rate at which the students worked, there was no
increase in the percentage of correct answers.
With all this information surrounding the effects of listening to classical music on test
scores, activity and anxiety levels, and distractibility, psychology and communication
researchers coined a term called the Mozart Effect (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1995; Burns,
Latimer, Matocha, Newman, Rosenbach, & Vogt, 1995; Cassity, Henley, & Markley, 2007).
Rauscher et al. (1995) explained the Mozart Effect as a “causal enhancement of spatial-temporal
reasoning” in conjunction with listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos K. 448, also referred
to as Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 (p. 44-45). In other words, participants who were exposed to
Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 scored higher on the spatial IQ tests and short-term memory tasks
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presented by the researchers than participants who completed the tasks in silence. Mozart’s
Sonata K. 448 has primarily been the only musical work to produce such stark results in terms of
spatial-temporal performance enhancement. Spatial-temporal enhancement can be characterized
as an enhancement in problem-solving skills, organizational skills, visualization of a task’s end
goal, much like a puzzle (Rauscher et al., 1995; Burns et al., 1995; Cassity et al., 2007).
A study by Burns et al. (1995) seemed to contradict the Mozart Effect phenomenon. In
their study, the researchers prompted the participants to take a test, where they were given a
couple minutes during the testing period with the option of listening to a Mozart piece, a
recording of a relaxation instruction, or simply sitting in silence. After this interlude, participants
continued taking the test in silence. The results of the study concluded that neither the short
recess for music, relaxation instruction, nor silence had any effect on the outcome of the answers.
The fact that the music was not played throughout the entire period may have been the
foundation for the contradicting results.
A more recent study by Cassity et al. (2007) attempts to provide “a more ecologically
valid reconsideration” of the Mozart Effect (p. 13). The study does not deny the effect of
Mozart’s music on heightened performance, but rather it ventures to find a different reason
behind the alleged causal relationship. The results found in the study supported the researchers’
hypothesis that the improved performance in a scored video game after listening to specific
works by Mozart was not due directly to the presence of the musical stimuli, but rather from the
emotional response that the music elicited. That is, subjects excelled only after listening to the
pieces that they personally found most enjoyable.
With an understanding of research from the past few decades, it seems as though the facts
point to the notion that if there is any sort of statistical correlation between listening to classical
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music, perhaps even Mozart’s Sonata K. 448, and improved task performance, it is most likely
due to the emotional response that manifests within the participant. In most of the
aforementioned cases, if participants, or students, are given the option to listen to classical music
before a test period (during information intake) or during a test period (during information
recall), they seem to be in a generally better mood, demonstrate more of a readiness to participate
at a faster work rate, and seem to be more focused. Whether these heightened characteristics
translate to heightened test scores or task completion tends to vary with the design of each study.
Given Rauscher et al.’s (1995) proposal that Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 evokes enhanced
performance in spatial-temporal reasoning; we wanted to see what this particular musical piece’s
effect might be on the pure recall of factual information. Specifically, we hypothesized that
students who listened to Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 during a testing period would score higher on
an assessment than students who took the same assessment in silence.
Twenty students (14 females, 6 males) participated in this experiment. The subjects were
various student volunteers from Slippery Rock University, all ages 18 years and older.
Designand Experimental Task
The study was a 1 (test score) x 2 (presence or absence of background music) design.
The task consisted of having subjects view a twelve-minute informational video, by
Jenkins and Plait (2015) called “Introduction to Astronomy: Crash Course Astronomy #1” and
then take a seven question multiple-choice assessment on the video content (Figure 2).
Upon arrival, subjects were randomly placed into either the ‘music group’ or the ‘silence
group’ and were immediately moved to the appropriate classroom. The two separate groups
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viewed the video and completed the assessment in two separate rooms. Once the experiment
began, the groups did not mix or interact with one another until after the experiment had
concluded. Prior to the experiment, subjects were not informed of the study’s purpose. The
subjects’ test scores were discarded if they indicated that they had previously viewed the video
or had extensive instruction on the subject of astronomy.
After the testing period, researchers then collected the subjects’ completed answer sheet
and indicated (by marking an “M” for the music group and a dash for the silence group) to which
group the participant belonged. Researchers calculated the subjects’ scores out of 7 for
descriptive and inferential statistical analyses to be performed.
The assessment used in the experiment consisted of seven multiple-choice questions,
each with four possible answers (Figure 2). As part of the assessment, subjects were asked for
supplementary information such as their age, sex, expected date of graduation, major(s), and
minor(s). Subjects were also asked yes or no questions on whether or not they had viewed the
informational video before, whether they had prior training on the subject of astronomy, whether
they found the video difficult to understand, and whether or not they were registered with the
Office of Disabilities for a specific learning disability. None of the subjects answered, “yes” to
any of the questions. These supplementary questions were not calculated in the subjects’ test
The graded questions were derived from key points spread throughout Jenkins and Plait’s
(2015) informational video. The assessments for the control group (the silence group) and the
experimental group (the music group) were identical. They were graded and given a score out of
seven. The subjects’ test score was the dependent variable in the study.
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Upon arrival, participants were randomly selected to be part of either one of the two
1. Silence group (control)
2. Music group
The randomized groups were separated into different classrooms, each with an experimenter, and
students were seated far enough apart so that they could not see other participants’ answers. The
experimenter instructed the participants not to interact with one another and informed the
participants that they would be watching a twelve-minute video, entitled “Introduction to
Astronomy: Crash Course Astronomy #1” and that they would later be asked to fill out a seven-
question assessment on the information. The silence group watched the video and completed the
assessment without any background music. The music group watched the video and completed
the assessment with Mozart’s Sonata K. 448, as used by Rauscher et al. (1995), playing softly in
the background. After completing the assessment, participants were given candy to thank them
for their time, and debriefed before leaving the room.
The scores were recorded, separated into two unnamed groups, and analyzed by a
researcher that did not take part in the actual experiment itself in order to maintain internal
validity. The mean score for the silence group was 5.1 out of 7, while the mean score for the
music group was 5.8 out of 7. The results did not yield a significant difference in an
independent-sample t test with 18 degrees of freedom (t = 1.24, p>.05). There was no statistically
significant difference between the two sets of scores.
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The presence of background music in the form of Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 during the
testing period or silence during the testing period was the independent variable in this study.
Test of Hypothesis
In order to test the aforementioned hypothesis, the two groups’ assessment scores were
analyzed using an interval/ratio measurement of the dependent variable (test score) using the
presence or absence of music as the independent variables. The results of the independent sample
t test are presented in Figure 1 (t = 1.24, p>.05).
Differences in control and experimental test scores. The hypothesis stated that students
who listened to Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 during a testing period would score higher on an
assessment than students who took the same assessment in silence. Although the mean score of
the first group, the music group, was higher than that of the second group, the silence group,
(M1=5.8, M2=5.1), the difference was not statistically different, therefore the hypothesis was not
supported (t = 1.24, p>.05). Students who listened to Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 during the testing
period did not score significantly higher than students who completed the same assessment in
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Although our research did not fully confirm our hypothesis, we did see a somewhat
higher average score in the group that was exposed to Mozart’s Sonata K. 448, although it was
not proven to be significant. These findings coincide with the majority of the research we found
on the topic in the sense that there might be a difference, just not one that indicates a causal
relationship between listening to classical music and improved levels of information recall. The
presence of background music could have had a calming effect on the experiment’s research
subjects, or lowered their levels of anxiety during and after the testing period, but our experiment
did not examine those dependent variables.
As many precautions as possible were taken to ensure that the sample of student subjects
would not be biased or influenced by the experimenters or procedures, but there is always a
margin of doubt. On a campus such as Slippery Rock University, which doesn’t necessarily have
a large student body, it is almost impossible to ensure that the subjects and experimenters do not
know each other. The majority of the research participants were friends from classes and
extracurricular activities. That being said, most of the participants knew each other and all of the
participants knew at least one of the experimenters. Perhaps the familiarity among the group as a
whole skewed the subjects’ test scores. A participant that knows everyone in the room may have
lower levels of anxiety than a participant that knows only one person to begin with, which may
have affected their test scores. Looking back, perhaps a way to avoid this dilemma would be to
make sure that subjects all have an equal opportunity to introduce themselves to the group, or to
make sure that subjects who are friends are separated.
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A second limitation to the present study was the sex distribution of the participants. The
pool of participants was predominantly comprised of females. Perhaps males and females react
differently to different testing environments or variations in musical stimuli.
The difference in our findings may not have held up to statistical analysis, but it is
important to point out that the presence of background music did not have a negative effect on
the participants’ test scores when compared to the silent group’s scores. The lowest score out of
the music group was a 4/7 (57%), while the lowest score out of the silence group was a 3.7
(43%). This signifies that although listening to Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 wouldn’t considerably
improve a student’s grade, it wouldn’t hurt, either.
Rauscher et al. (1995) originally chose to experiment with Mozart’s Sonata K. 448
because “[Mozart] was composing at the age of four. Thus [it would be expected] that Mozart
was exploiting the inherent repertoire of spatial-temporal firing patterns in the cortex” (p. 46). In
this way, the researchers thought that since Mozart seemed to be operating at a high level of
spatial-temporal reasoning at the time of composition, it could invoke a sense of stimulation in
the spatial-temporal performance of research participants that were subject to his work. While
that concept may hold some validity, it seems as though that doesn’t exactly transfer over to
factual information recall, as was seen in the present experiment. It would be interesting,
however, to see what sorts of effects other composers of a similar genre and sound have on
subjects’ spatial-temporal performance, or even plain factual information recall.
Another possible direction for further research is the notion that background music
affects subjects’ emotional state, or mood, and may therefore help or hinder their test scores.
Perhaps different genres of music have different effects on subjects’ mood; does lyrical music
cause heightened levels of distractibility, and does music of a faster or slower tempo yield a
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similar response? Are males and females affected differently by the presence of music of any
type during a testing period? In the present experiment, perhaps the subjects enjoyed, or did not
enjoy, Mozart’s Sonata K. 448. Did their opinion on the music selection have an effect on their
ability to concentrate during the testing period?
Whatever the circumstances, Rauscher et al. (1995) likened the brain’s response to
musical stimuli as the “’Rosetta Stone’ for the ‘code’ or internal language of higher brain
function” (p. 47). If the theory that the instruction and production of music translates to higher
levels of brain function in some individuals is true, perhaps future researchers will be able to
delve into the data and investigate a way to expand those benefits to the general, not-so-
musically-inclined public in order to help foster a stronger academic environment that inspires
future generations to seek more extensive knowledge.
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