Anxiety and Memory: Their Effects on Cognition and Musical Performance
by Daisy T. Lu, Ph.D.
Music Specialist, Cascade View Elementary School, Tukwila School District, WA
Adjunct Faculty Member, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA

The way in which the brain works is one of the great mysteries and wonders of science. Information is acquired, stored and retrieved in the brain by a complex process. Analysis of how learning and memory work through musical performance is the thesis of this essay. Musical learning has additional implications for cognitive processes involved in presenting a paper from memory or performing in a play or a dance.
Like the universe with its billions of stars, the human brain is a constellation of billions of neural cells which communicate with one another by forming networks that are the basis of human awareness and memory. Learning a scientific theory is a process of forming connections among these cells. In a like manner, learning a piece of music through memory is similar to the clustering of the planetary systems and stars.

Patterns of neural networks are unique to each individual. Every person's memory is formed from bits and pieces of existing networks resulting from previous musical training, making past learning crucial to more advanced learning. Added to this are the immediate requirements of the memory task at hand. As new materials are encoded in the memory, existing networks expand, forming new memory "constellations." Therefore, the mastery of musical modes forms building blocks for understanding and remembering a specific piece written in one of those modes. The same is true for any cognitive process such as writing. Skills in good writing - content, organization, word choice, sentence fluency, and voice - are mastered through meaningful active learning processes in context rather than in isolation. When the brain sees the connections, it stores information in long term memory.

The plasticity (ability to change) or reconfigurations of neural networks means that effective practice and mastery of past work will always be beneficial to new musical tasks. This holds true with science, math, reading and writing, where new knowledge "scaffolds" or builds on previous knowledge, and where new learning "evolves" to a higher level rather than acting as a mere add-on.

Active learning enables memory networks to be altered by neural activities, building higher levels of meaning in the process. No less potent to memory are the emotional feelings associated with thoughts. Signals from emotional activities "sparkle" through memory networks as one learns and recalls stored information. One's conscious thoughts constantly influence how one learns and remembers, again affecting long term memory.

Fears and doubts also influence what is stored in memory. Negative feelings can interfere with recall by diverting one's attention from previously prepared memory tasks. Anxiety, which alters the focus of attention, can result in the concentration on the "self" rather than the "task." Thus, the attention focus in memory tasks cannot be overemphasized. A memory "slip" on the part of a performer, musician or lecturer, may not be the result of faulty memory storage, but a misdirection of attention. Although a great portion of a performance is automatic, signals from the limbic system where anxiety operates can disrupt the flow of automatic response patterns programmed by hard work and diligent practice.

Anxiety during performance is not all negative. The anxious state is the work of the sympathetic nervous system, whereas the calm state is the work of the parasympathetic nervous system. When a risk is perceived, the body circulates adrenalin to activate the sympathetic nervous system, bringing into effect bodily responses useful for survival in a primitive environment. The heart rate increases blood supply to the larger muscles which are ready for "fight or flight" responses, either to attack or to move away from the threat.

Increased sympathetic responses in anxious situations can increase mental alertness. However, these responses may also encourage racing images and thoughts not experienced in regular practice. Often, the performer will have doubts never before experienced in practice. The resulting over-consciousness can create havoc in performance. Under similar conditions, the performer may also invent novel ways to imagine danger in the execution of prepared passages. This hyperactive mental state can be a threat to memory because brain networks are activated which otherwise are silent during rehearsed performances.

The sympathetic nervous system can bring about body changes such as increased peripheral vision and light sensitivity, palm perspiration, dry mouth, and similar negative states which affect the recall of musical scores. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the normal state without excess adrenalin. Chances of uninterrupted memory are much greater in the parasympathetic state.

A constant state of anxiety affects memory networks themselves. Although some anxiety is part of the learning process, repeated practice in a nervous state can associate unwanted feelings and insecurities with the memory of the passage itself. This learned anxiety can be difficult to remedy and will negatively affect overall performance.

Ironically, practice that concentrates on avoiding mistakes is likely to condition the performer to anxiety responses rather than confident motor output. For most people, positive concentration on musical content is better than intense worry over techniques. This physiological anxiety gets built into the performance when good decisions about fingering, technique, choreography, or a verbal presentation are missing. Inefficient technical practice also induces fatigue, lack of coordination, stiffness, and absence of expressiveness.

An expressive and efficient musician learns to establish "emergency stations" by automatically building some amount of anxiety into his or her performance. A secure musical flow can result from proper phrasing and from confidence in knowing certain "landmarks" without considering them as escape routes. One can be productive by being music-centered rather than self-centered, being self-aware for the sake of improving one's performance rather than developing a habit of self-doubt or being overly concerned about what critical listeners are thinking.

Visual and auditory memory are parts of the musical learning process which require similar interacting networks located in various parts of the brain. They, too, are constantly reshaped by new experiences. Meaningfully challenging input, which can bring in positive anxiety, reshapes thinking to a higher level.

The way in which anxiety and emotion interact is an important issue for further research. Anxiety may modulate memory via the limbic system. In his book, Memory and Brain (1990), Larry Squire describes the contribution of the limbic system in modulating memory formation. As we learn, the very chemistry of our anxiety may influence what we remember, and this certainly extends beyond musical memory.

Memory is crucial to the normal functioning of the mind and to the phenomenon of consciousness. It is a major breakthrough, therefore, that scientists have begun to understand how biological and biochemical changes and mental processes can account for the way in which we record events as memories, and how these memories are associated with one another. Educators likewise can benefit from this research as we teach according to how memory retains intact meaning and, in the process, stimulates and gains deeper meaning.


Calvin, W.H. (1998). The Cerebral Code: Thinking as Thought in the Mosaic of Mind, M.I.T. Press: Massachusetts, pp. 264.

Cooper, L.N. (1995). How We Learn: How We Remember. World Scientific Publishing Company: N.J., pp. 395.

Gross. C.G. (1998). The Brain, Vision, and Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience. M.I.T. Press: Massachusetts, pp. 404.

Leviton, R. (1995). Brain Builders: A Lifelong Guide to Sharpen Thinking Better Memory, and an Ageproof Mind Prentice Hall: N.J., pp. 432.

Schacter, D.O. (1997). Memory Distortions: How Minds, Brains and Society Reconstruct the Past. Harvard University Press: Massachusetts.

Schacter, D.O. (1997). Searching for Meaning: The Mind, the Brain and the Past. Basic Books: N.Y.

Squire, L.R. (1987). Memory and the Brain. Oxford University Press:

GO TO: Music and the Brain Explore the Nervous System
Experiments and Activities Table of Contents

Send E-mail

Get Newsletter

Search Pages