Institute of Art Design + Technology
Dún Laoghaire

Sean Ó' Síocháin 

BSc [Hons] Applied Psychology

Hey! My name is Seán Ó' Síocháin and I have recently completed my degree in Applied Psychology (BSc) in Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT). Over the past four years I have learned a great deal about the human mind and how to apply psychological theories and methods to the real world. I am a passionate musician and so my thesis aimed to explore the relationship between music and psychology. In the future I hope to pursue a career in which I can combine my creativity and passion for music with my interests in psychology.

Project Description

This project aimed to investigate the relationships between musical tempo (slow-tempo, mid-tempo and fast-tempo), key (minor or major), working memory and emotional arousal. Participants were instructed to memorise information from an extract for ten minutes under one of seven background music conditions (including silence). After memorising, the participants underwent a math task-switching component before completing a questionnaire consisting of questions about information from the extract and questions investigating emotional arousal. The reading comprehension extract and math task-switching task were included to emulate a real-life studying scenario. All the data was analysed using SPSS version 27.

Project Objectives

This study primarily aimed to examine whether the key and tempo of background music had a statistically significant effect on working memory, to figure out the ideal background music condition to facilitate working memory and to see if studying in silence was advantageous over studying to background music.

Previous research into background music and its impact on cognitive functioning and executive functions has lacked rigorous research methods, produced inconclusive findings, employed varying background music interventions, and has lacked a mid-tempo condition as a middle ground between highly arousing fast-tempo music, and slightly arousing low-tempo music.

Additionally, previous research has failed to isolate the constituent characteristics of music like key and tempo, instead comparing the effect of different background musical genres on working memory. This is problematic because music genres share commonalities, and music may merge multiple genres, meaning genre is often not an accurate descriptor of music.

Therefore, the current study aimed to improve upon previous research designs by ensuring the music was as homogenous as possible in order to isolate constituent characteristics and through including a mid-tempo condition. Working memory was tested, as it is a component of executive function important for studying. It was thought that the results of this study could be implemented to help students' and institutions develop more effective studying strategies.

Project Outcomes

Results indicated that the key and tempo of background music did not have a statistically significant effect on working memory whilst studying. There did not appear to be an ideal background music condition to facilitate working memory, or an advantage to studying in silence over studying to background music.

Six robust themes were identified in the participants' responses to the questions regarding emotional arousal; ‘Music enjoyment’, ‘helped memory’, ‘distracting from task’, ‘a sense of relaxation’, ‘increased sleepiness’ and ‘a sense of pressure’.

Further analysis revealed low-tempo music was most commonly described as 'relaxing' or 'sleepy', potentially negatively affecting working memory. In contrast, the fast tempo-music was most commonly described as 'distracting' or 'inducing a sense of pressure', also potentially negatively affecting working memory. The participants reported that the music 'helped memory' most often in the mid-tempo conditions. These findings may correlate with the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal, which argues that there is an optimal mid-point in the relationship between pressure and performance, between under-stimulating slow-tempo music and over-stimulating fast-tempo music.

Lastly, participants reported enjoying the major key music slightly more often than the minor key music, which may be due to major key music supposedly arousing more positive emotions than minor key music.

Thesis Title

Exploring the effects of background music’s tempo and key on working memory and emotional arousal.