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Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain 2014 American Psychological Association

2014, Vol. 24, No. 2, 184 190 0275-3987/14/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/pmu0000038

Effects of Music and Grade Consequences on Test Anxiety and

Jennifer L. Lilley, Crystal D. Oberle, and Jon G. Thompson, Jr.
Texas State University

This research investigated the effects of grade consequences and music on test anxiety and performance.
Eighty undergraduate participants (75% women, 25% men; mean age of 19.63 years; 51% Caucasian,
38% Hispanic, 4% African American) were instructed that their performance on a mathematics test either
would or would not affect their course credit. Afterward, they listened to either calm or obnoxious music
for 5 min prior to the test. Anxiety was assessed with a self-report inventory, systolic blood pressure,
diastolic blood pressure, and heart rate. Compared with those who listened to obnoxious music, those
who listened to calm music had lower systolic blood pressure (p .01, 2 .08), lower heart rate (p
.04, 2 .06), and higher test scores (p .01, 2 .11); however, the latter 2 effects were only
significant for those whose course credit was threatened (p .05, 2 .05). Self-reported anxiety (p
.50, 2 .01) and diastolic blood pressure (p .79, 2 .01) were not significantly affected. These
findings suggest a benefit of relaxing music for students experiencing test anxiety.

Keywords: music, test performance, test anxiety, heart rate, blood pressure

Many undergraduate college students experience higher than inations may lead to poor understanding of test material and study
normal levels of anxiety owing to a variety of stressors, including habits, as well as inhibit adequate performance during tests
the academic demands of their studies, homesickness, alcohol, (Carden, Bryant, & Moss, 2004; Cassady & Johnson, 2002;
peer pressure, and a novel independent financial life (e.g., Butler, Chapell et al., 2005).
Dodge, & Faurote, 2010; Conley & Lehman, 2012; Hamaideh,
2011; Verger et al., 2009). The current study will examine whether Relieving Anxiety
listening to calming music lowers students anxiety in testing
situations. One anxiety-relieving strategy that is used universally in human
nature is music. The findings from research on the impact of music
Test Anxiety and Grade Consequences in occupational settings revealed that a single music relaxation
session decreased participants state anxiety significantly, com-
Anxiety is a human emotion that persists in reaction to fear, pared to a control group with no music therapy (Smith, 2008).
uncertainty, or threat in the environment. Several attempts to These results support the idea that music can serve as a relaxation
conceptualize and classify anxiety have been primed, one of which tool in occupational settings. Not only did participants have feel-
is the statetrait function (Spielberger, 1972, 1983). State anxiety ings of reduced tension but also a sense of pleasantness. The
is an acute reaction to a particular situation that appears to be results support the idea that music can help workers reduce anxiety
uncertain or threatening, inducing stress on the individual. Trait that is normally associated with workplace environments. The
anxiety refers to the permanent tendency to react with state anxiety calming effect of music has a positive impact on a persons mood
due to anticipation of stressful events. Both of these classifications and quality of work, as well as an increase in perceived level of
can be further broken into hierarchal catalogs. One subset of the relaxation that may help the person focus on performance (Labbe,
state brand is test anxiety, which encompasses anxiety when under Schmidt, Babin, & Pharr, 2007; Lesiuk, 2005).
evaluation or in testing situations. This construct is a physiological Music therapy has many demonstrated applications. Transplant
and psychological response to concern over poor test performance (Madson & Silverman, 2010), Alzheimers (Gutin et al., 2009),
and its implications. Empirical literature advocates that test anxiety and mechanical ventilation (Han et al., 2010) patients have all had
negatively affects student academic performance in high school a positive reaction to music therapy. The Madison and Silverman
and college students through several methods. In particular, cog- study measured anxiety with verbalization from the patient as well
nitive interference and worry caused by test anxiety before exam- a Likert-type scale, and the Gutin et al. study issued the Hamilton
Scale to assess the patients levels of anxiety.
The Han et al. study used the State Trait Anxiety Scale but also
evaluated physiological measurements like respiratory rate, sys-
This article was published Online First April 14, 2014.
Jennifer L. Lilley, Crystal D. Oberle, and Jon G. Thompson, Jr. Depart-
tolic blood pressure (SBP), and heart rate (HR). HR and blood
ment of Psychology, Texas State University. pressure (Duan, Xiao, Zhao, & Zhu, 2008) have been shown to be
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Crystal physiologic indices of anxiety. Therefore, one could predict that if
D. Oberle, Department of Psychology, Texas State University, 601 Uni- anxiety were to be alleviated, so would the cardiovascular conse-
versity Drive, San Marcos, TX 78666. E-mail: quences. Numerous studies have shown that music therapy can


reduce such physiological measures as SBP and HR, as well as Regarding music, many students may study in the presence of
other negative effects of anxiety (Han et al., 2010; Knight & music, and the type of music may affect their anxiety levels and
Rickard, 2001; Tse, Chan, & Benzie, 2005). academic performance. The prediction is that obnoxious music (in
this study, fast-tempo music with sharply changing metal tones)
will increase students anxiety and negatively affect testing per-
Music and Cognitive Performance
formance owing to the excessively high arousal level, whereas
Additional research on the positive effects of music has ex- calm music (in this study, slow-tempo music with soothing instru-
plored its influence on cognitive performance. Many researchers mental tones) will decrease students anxiety to an optimal level
have found that people perform better on spatial cognitive tasks and positively affect testing performance. Furthermore, an inter-
after listening to 10 min of Mozart than after sitting in silence (e.g., action between grade consequences and music is expected. For
Ho, Mason, & Spence, 2007; Ivanov & Geake, 2003; Jauovec, example, threatening students grades may increase anxiety, which
Jauovec, & Gerlic, 2006; Johnson, Shaw, Vuong, Vuong, & may be either further increased with obnoxious music or decreased
Cotman, 2002). However, others have failed to find such a benefit to normal levels with calm music.
of listening to Mozart (e.g., Crncec, Wilson, & Prior, 2006; Hui,
2006; McKelvie & Low, 2002). Method
The mediating effect of arousal has been supported by the
findings of several research studies. For instance, researchers have
found that performance was greater when the task was completed
after listening to the up-beat Mozart piece than after listening to a The participants included 80 undergraduate students, 60 women
relaxation tape, as well as self-reported increases in arousal after and 20 men, ranging from ages 17 to 26 (M 19.63, SD 1.73).
listening to a fast-tempo piece and self-reported decreases in These students represented a variety of majors that were mostly
arousal after listening to a slow-tempo piece (Husain, Thompson, recruited from the general-education introductory psychology
& Schellenberg, 2002; Schellenberg, Nakata, Hunter, & Tamoto, classes at Texas State University. The majority of participants
2007; Thompson, Schellenberg, & Husain, 2001). Furthermore, were Caucasian (51%), with the remaining sample being Hispanic
when the arousal level is statistically covaried, the Mozart effect (38%), African American (4%), or of another ethnic origin (7%).
disappears (Jones & Estell, 2007; Jones, West, & Estell, 2006). Prior to participation, the participants were given information
Thus, arousal, rather than the music per se, seems to best predict about the basic procedures involved in the study, but to minimize
cognitive performance. potential bias, they were not informed of the specific manipula-
Extending this idea to academic performance, relevant to the tions or hypotheses under investigation.
students arousal level is test anxiety. Based on the classic psy-
chological arousalperformance relationship (Yerkes & Dodson,
1908), performance will be greatest when the performer experi-
ences a moderate level of arousal. Thus, if students are especially Throughout this study, which was conducted in a small and
anxious about a test due to the grade consequences, listening to windowless laboratory room, the participants anxiety was as-
fast-tempo, obnoxious music prior to the test may increase their sessed with three physiological measures and one self-report mea-
already-heightened arousal level, leading to relatively poor perfor- sure. The physiological measures (see Relieving Anxiety in the
mance on the test. On the other hand, listening to slow-tempo, preceding literature review) were SBP, diastolic blood pressure
calm music prior to the test may lower their arousal to a more (DBP), and HR, all of which were monitored by a blood pressure
optimal level, leading to relatively greater performance on the test. machine (Dinamap PRO, Model 100V2; SBP and DBP accuracy
within 2 digits; HR accuracy within 3 digits) and standard blood
pressure cuff. The self-report measure was the participants score
Purpose of the Current Study
on the StateTrait Anxiety Inventory, form Y1 (STAI-Y1; Spiel-
The current study evaluates the interactive effects of grade berger, 1983), which is the most frequently used measure of ones
consequences and music on anxiety (assessed with physiological current level of state anxiety. Internal consistency of the STAI-Y1
and self-report measures) and academic test performance. What is is high (Cronbachs alpha .93), whereas low testretest reliabili-
unique about this research is that the pairing of both factors allows ties (.27 for women, .54 for men) support that the instrument
investigation of how induced or relieved anxiety affects scholastic validly measures state anxiety that varies from one moment to the
performance in a controlled, but ecologically valid, experiment. next (Spielberger, 1983).
Regarding grade consequences, students are given information The studys other self-report measure was a survey with demo-
from their professors that can either increase or decrease their state graphic, academic, and health questions. The academic portion of
anxiety and self-efficacy, both of which may impact test perfor- the survey included questions that asked for the participants
mance (Kesici, Erdogan, & Kelesoglu, 2009). Essentially, greater overall grade point average (GPA; on a 4.0 scale), mathematics
demands relate to greater negative effects (Chambel & Curral, GPA (on a 4.0 scale), and number of mathematics courses that
2005). The prediction is that students who are instructed to simply were taken in high school and college. The health portion included
try their best and not worry about a test will be optimistic, questions about variables that may have an effect on blood pres-
experience less anxiety, and perform relatively well on the test. In sure and HR (e.g., weight, height, caffeine intake, smoking status,
contrast, greater anxiety and poorer performance may result when hypertension, neuroleptic or cold medication).
students are warned that the test will be difficult and that their Two types of music, either calm or obnoxious, were played with
performance is critical to their grade in the course. a compact disk player. The calm music was the Inner Dance Part

B song from Dr. Jeffery Thompsons (2006) Music for Brain- warning toward the end of the period. During this time, the
wave Massage album, which includes soothing music that was researcher took three recordings of the physiological measures of
specifically designed to induce a state of relaxation and decrease anxiety: after 1, 5, and 8 min had passed. These recordings were
anxiety. The obnoxious music was the A Walk Beyond Utter averaged to obtain the participants SBP, DBP, and HR while
Blackness song from Xasthurs (2004) Telepathic with the De- taking the test. Afterward, the participant completed the STAI-Y1
ceased album, with sharply changing metal tones that may a third time, but with instruction to respond based on how he or she
heighten anxiety and overall arousal level. Each song was com- felt while taking the test.
pletely instrumental to eliminate variability with participants in-
terpretation of lyrics, and to eliminate verbal interference while Analyses
participants simultaneously read information in preparation for a
test. Additionally, each song was played at the same volume to Nine 2 2 independent-measures analyses of covariance
avoid a loudness confound. (ANCOVA) were conducted to analyze the data. For each analysis,
The study materials and corresponding test addressed mathe- the two factors were Music (calm vs. obnoxious) and Grade
matics. The study materials included three pages of information Consequences (no threat to course credit vs. threat to course credit
from a textbook chapter on problem-solving strategies and math- based on test performance). For each effect, an alpha level of .04
ematical reasoning (Tate & Schoonbeck, 2004). This material (using a Bonferroni adjustment to avoid alpha inflation from
served as a simulation for study material that a student would conducting nine separate analyses) was used to determine signif-
normally review before a test in one of their courses. The subse- icance, and eta-squared estimates were computed to determine the
quent test included 20 mathematical reasoning questions from the effect strength. With these parameters and 20 participants per
California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE; California group, power for the study is .60 for medium effects and .96 for
Department of Education, 2008), as well as five advanced math- large effects. The first four analyses tested the factors effects on
ematics questions from an introductory calculus textbook (Larson, the three physiological measures of anxiety (i.e., SBP, DBP, HR)
Hostetler, & Edwards, 1994). The latter questions were added to and the one self-report measure of anxiety (i.e., STAI-Y1 score)
increase the difficulty of the test to a collegiate level. while studying with music being played in the background, and the
second four analyses tested the factors effects on the same phys-
iological and self-report measures of anxiety while taking the test.
Procedure The final analysis tested the factors effects on the participants
The first part of the session entailed random assignment and performance on the mathematics test.
obtaining baseline measures. Participants were randomly assigned
to one of four conditions, representing one of two levels for each Results
independent variable: Music and Grade Consequences. Next, the
researcher placed the blood pressure cuff on the participants Effects of Music and Grade Consequences on Anxiety
nondominant arm, and took five recordings of the three physio-
logical measures of anxiety via the automated blood pressure The statistically significant findings from the first eight
machine. The last four recordings were averaged to obtain the ANCOVAs are described in the following paragraph. Table 1
participants baseline SBP, DBP, and HR. Then, the participant presents the complete inferential results pertaining to anxiety while
completed the demographic survey and the STAI-Y1 for the first studying with music; Table 2 presents the complete inferential
time. results pertaining to anxiety while taking the test. Also refer to
The second part of the session entailed manipulating the Grade Figures 1 and 2 for a visual of the interactions between Music and
Consequences and Music variables. Half of the participants were Grade Consequences on HR while studying with music and while
told that the mathematics test would be difficult and that their test taking the test afterward.
score would determine the amount of extra credit that they would These analyses revealed significant effects, which were moder-
receive, and half were told that they should not worry about the ate in magnitude, of Music on SBP, one of the physiological
difficulty of the test and that the amount of extra credit received measures of anxiety. While studying with music, SBP was signif-
would not be affected by their test score. Next, the researcher gave icantly greater for participants who listened to the obnoxious
the participant reading material with tips on problem solving and music (M 111.75, SD 13.30) than for participants who
mathematical reasoning. During the 5 min that the participant was listened to the calm music (M 107.40, SD 10.08). Likewise,
given to study, music was played in the background. Half of the while taking the mathematics test, SBP was significantly greater
participants listened to the calm music, and half listened to the for participants who listened to the obnoxious music (M 111.08,
obnoxious music. During this period, the researcher took two SD 13.86) than for participants who listened to the calm music
recordings of the physiological measures of anxiety: after 1 and 3 (M 106.80, SD 9.20). Although similar results were found
min had passed. These recordings were averaged to obtain the with HR, the more informative findings with this variable were
participants SBP, DBP, and HR while studying with music. Af- significant interactions, which were moderate in magnitude, be-
terward, the participant completed the STAI-Y1 a second time, but tween Music and Grade Consequences. For participants who were
with instruction to respond based on how he or she felt while told that their performance on the mathematics test would not
studying the material. affect the credit that they would receive in their course, the type of
The final part of the session entailed administering the mathe- music did not have an effect on HR while studying with music (see
matics test in silence. The participant was given 10 min to com- Figure 1) or while taking the test (see Figure 2). However, for
plete the 25 test questions and was given a 2-min and a 1-min participants whose grades were threatened, HR was significantly

Table 1 Table 2
ANCOVA for Anxiety Measures While Studying With Music ANCOVA for Anxiety Measures While Taking the
Mathematics Test
Source df F p
Source df F p
Systolic blood pressure (SBP)
Covariatebaseline SBP 1 534.13 .001 .877 Systolic blood pressure (SBP)
Music (M) 1 6.57 .012 .081 Covariatebaseline SBP 1 626.56 .001 .893
Grade consequences (GC) 1 0.15 .697 .002 Music (M) 1 7.05 .010 .086
M GC 1 0.21 .652 .003 Grade consequences (GC) 1 1.71 .194 .022
Within-group error 75 (17.59) M GC 1 2.78 .100 .036
Diastolic blood pressure (DBP) Within-group error 75 (15.21)
Covariatebaseline DBP 1 234.94 .001 .758 Diastolic blood pressure (DBP)
M 1 0.07 .793 .001 Covariatebaseline DBP 1 198.78 .001 .726
GC 1 1.00 .320 .013 M 1 0.78 .381 .010
M GC 1 0.14 .715 .002 GC 1 1.88 .175 .024
Within-group error 75 (8.92) M GC 1 0.25 .616 .003
Heart rate (HR) Within-group error 75 (11.36)
Covariatebaseline HR 1 425.90 .001 .850 Heart rate (HR)
M 1 4.51 .037 .057 Covariatebaseline HR 1 276.36 .001 .787
GC 1 7.57 .007 .092 M 1 6.17 .015 .076
M GC 1 5.85 .018 .072 GC 1 2.62 .110 .034
Within-group error 75 (16.95) M GC 1 5.28 .024 .066
Statetrait anxiety inventory, form Within-group error 75 (22.61)
Y1 (STAI-Y1) Statetrait anxiety inventory, form
Covariatebaseline STAI-Y1 1 4.01 .049 .051 Y1 (STAI-Y1)
M 1 0.45 .504 .006 Covariatebaseline STAI-Y1 1 2.21 .141 .029
GC 1 0.71 .404 .009 M 1 0.90 .346 .012
M GC 1 1.76 .189 .023 GC 1 0.65 .422 .009
Within-group error 75 (9.21) M GC 1 0.01 .915 .001
Within-group error 75 (8.84)
Note. Values in parentheses are mean square errors.
Note. Values in parentheses are mean square errors.

greater for those who listened to the obnoxious music than for
those who listened to the calm music. whereas faster-paced music increases tension levels (Lane, 1992;
Marazziti et al., 2007). However, although the same trends arose,
music did not significantly impact DBP or self-report measures of
Effects of Music and Grade Consequences
anxiety. With respect to blood pressure, these results are consistent
on Test Performance
with the findings of other studies, in which laboratory stressors had
The statistically significant findings from the final ANCOVA a greater impact on SBP than on DBP (Cesana et al., 2003;
are described below (see Table 3 for the complete inferential Mendelson, Thurston, & Kubzansky, 2008). Regarding self-
results). As with the analysis on HR, this analysis on test perfor- reported anxiety, given the proximity of the researcher, social
mance revealed a significant effect of Music that was moderate in desirability bias may have played a role in their survey responses.
magnitude. The interaction between Music and Grade Conse- Additionally, given that participants completed the STAI-Y1 three
quences approached significance at p .05. Although this prob- times during the study, their responses on the final two inventories
ability level falls above the Bonferroni-corrected criterion of .04,
because the effect was moderate in magnitude, post hoc
independent-measures t tests were conducted. As shown in Figure
3, when participants grades were not threatened, there was no
difference in test scores between participants in the different music
conditions, t(38) 0.08, p .94. However, for participants whose
grades were threatened, test scores were significantly lower for
participants who listened to the obnoxious as opposed to the calm
music, t(38) 4.38, p .001.

The results of this study partially supported the hypothesized
impact of music on anxiety. In particular, compared with those
who listened to the obnoxious music, participants who listened to
the calm music experienced lower SBP and HR levels, both while
studying with the music and afterward while taking the mathemat-
ics test. These findings are consistent with those from other studies Figure 1. Means of HR while studying with music in the background.
showing that calm music reduces anxiety and promotes relaxation, Error bars represent SD.

Figure 2. Means of HR while taking the mathematics test. Error bars Figure 3. Means of test performance. Error bars represent SD.
represent SD.

individual differences in preference may also play a role. For

may have been biased by their recollection of how they responded example, a French study on metal music found that fans of this
on the initial baseline inventory. loud and obnoxious type of tune exhibited low levels of both
Also partially supported was the hypothesized interaction be- anxiety and depression (Recours, Aussaguel, & Trujillo, 2009).
tween music and grade consequences on anxiety. In particular, Furthermore, a study on postpartum women demonstrated that
music differentially affected HR while studying with music and some individuals did not experience lower anxiety when obliged to
while taking the test, based on the pretest instructions that partic- listen to preselected music when at home during a regulated time
ipants received. For participants who were told that their perfor- period (Tseng, Chen, & Lee, 2010). This suggests that musical
mance on the test would not affect the credit that they would preferences of individuals vary across a population when used as
receive in their course, the type of music had no effect on HR. In a tool for relieving or reducing anxiety. Given that participants
contrast, for participants whose grades were threatened, HR was fondness for particular styles, tempos, and overall sound provide a
significantly greater for those who listened to the obnoxious music more valuable response toward the music used, future research
than for those who listened to the calm music. However, this should try to incorporate such preferences in the examination on
interaction was not found with SBP or self-reported anxiety. The musics effects on anxiety and subsequent performance.
insignificant effects of the grade consequences factor on both of As to the effects on test performance, a corresponding signifi-
these measures suggest that the manipulation was perhaps not cant interaction was found, and this result could be the most
strong enough. Given that participation in the study only resulted noteworthy one from this study. This last interaction illustrates the
in a small amount of extra credit, students likely did not feel the effects that both music and grade consequences have on test
normal pressures associated with taking one of their course exams, performance. In particular, test scores were significantly lower for
which would have a greater impact on their overall grade. With participants who listened to the obnoxious music than for partic-
more at stake, significant interactions on SBP and self-reported ipants who listened to the calm music, and this effect was most
anxiety may have resulted. pronounced for participants whose grades were threatened on the
What these interactions show is that the degree of test anxiety basis of their test performance. These results suggest that, when
can be enhanced by the type of music with which students study. pertaining to scholastic performance, fear of consequences from
Test anxiety, produced by the warning instructions, may be com- performing poorly on an exam has a large impact on a students
plemented by obnoxious music to produce an unpleasant effect. On ability to optimally take an exam, but that listening to calm music
the other hand, test anxiety can be minimized if students study with beforehand may either reverse or cause less of a detriment.
calm music, using the pleasant effects to relax the student. Yet, The results of this study suggest that type of music is a factor
when implementing music as a tool for reducing anxiety in stu-
dents prior to testing situations. In this study, SBP and HR were
Table 3
reduced in this effect. Furthermore, when inserting a separate
ANCOVA for Mathematics Test Scores
stressor such as grade consequence, students who listen to harsh
Source df F p 2
music prior to testing could experience increased HR when listen-
ing to this music. Both conclusions suggest that harsh music, as
Covariateoverall GPA 1 0.39 .536 .005 opposed to calm music, does not contribute successfully to reduc-
Covariatemath GPA 1 0.84 .364 .012
Covariatemath courses taken 1 1.41 .239 .019
ing physiological measures of anxiety. Furthermore, this study
Music (M) 1 8.60 .005 .108 demonstrates that test anxiety may be increased when harsh music
Grade consequences (GC) 1 0.86 .358 .012 is played and, as a result, test performance can be reduced. The
M GC 1 3.97 .050 .053 interaction between grade consequence and type of music appears
Within-group error 71 (12.95) to be a mentionable factor toward test performance. To note, the
Note. Value in parentheses is mean square error. grade consequence implementation of this study was meant to

mimic the natural stress students feel prior to taking a real test due Chambel, M. J., & Curral, L. (2005). Stress in academic life: Work
to the usual heavy weight that exams have in the overall course characteristics as predictors of student well-being and performance.
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