The impact of music on learning

George Hammond-Hagan

George Hammond-Hagan is an Ivor Novello award-winner and founder Studytracks. Studytracks V1.0 was launched in February 2016, allowing students to revise for exams on the go, in an enjoyable and effective way. The innovative, free app merges music with study materials, using lyrics relating to a specific exam theme or topic. At the end of every track, learners can then test their recall using the in-app quiz.

At present the app features 46 songs within various subject categories for GCSE revision though it will be fully loaded from September with over 350 tracks (A & AS Level subjects coming soon). Studytracks works by turning topics into easy to remember “hooks”. As the student listens to the music, these hooks become embedded in their memory - just like the lyrics to a song - so that when something triggers the hook (like a word or phase in an exam question) students are able to recall the information easily and effectively.

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Everyone’s brains are made up of the same things: neurons, chemical hormones, electrical signals and so on, and, broadly speaking, we all learn in the same way. It’s not until we delve a little deeper and question the specifics of how exactly each person learns that the difference becomes evident and immeasurable. Some people, for example, need a completely silent environment to learn more effectively, yet earlier this year a new study carried out by scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences showed that a series of play lessons with music improved nine-month-old babies’ brain processing of both music and new speech sounds.

As far back as I can remember, music has always been a big part of my life. It’s my passion and something I’ve always loved; thankfully, I’ve had some great career success through music too. However, I’d never given much thought to its effect on studying, and whether or not it’s conducive to a productive learning environment.

The Mozart Effect

There are many theories and studies out there that positively support the impact "Students were better connected to a part of the brain called the default mode network."music has on the science of learning. I’m sure a lot of teachers will have heard of ‘The Mozart Effect’; it’s based around the idea that listening to classical music stimulates the brain which, in turn, helps boost children’s intelligence. The theory was first popularised by Dr Alfred A. Tomatis in the early 90s, in his book Pourquoi Mozart? In it, he argues that listening to Mozart’s music can have a beneficial effect on the brain.

But what about those who can’t stand classical music? Well, studies have found that listening to music can help with learning but only if you listen to the type of music you like.

Research carried out by Wake Forest School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina Greensboro found that in a group of 21 student participants, no more than six shared the same musical genre preference. It also found that when participants listened to a preferred song, they were better connected to a part of the brain called the default mode network. So, while most might assume that listening to music you enjoy would actually make you pay more attention to the song, rather than the task at hand (studying or learning), in fact the opposite is true: listening to music you enjoy enables you to focus more.

However, I haven’t always believed the hype. I remember coming home one afternoon a few years ago – my son was studying for his GCSEs at the time. I could hear music blaring from his bedroom and when I questioned it, he told me it helped him study. Without questioning it much further, I told him to turn the music off and concentrate on the books in front of him. I mean, how could he be learning with all that noise in the background distracting him? Surely his brain was conflicted between the study words and song lyrics, right?

Indeed there are numerous studies out there that suggest music is a distraction from learning. Ira Hyman, PhD, American psychologist and professor of Psychology at Western Washington University, studies memory and is an authority on repetitive memories. Have you ever had a"What if musical earworms could help students learn the content?" song stuck in your head, where you’ll find yourself humming it to yourself while walking down the street, or aimlessly checking emails, even if it’s a song you can’t stand? Well, Professor Hyman argues that in these instances you’ve been affected by ‘intrusive thoughts’ that he likens to earworms. His research shows that one of the times we’re most likely to fall victim to an earworm is when we’re doing something too difficult. 65 per cent of participants in one of Hyman’s experiments reported experiencing intrusive songs when doing schoolwork.

But what if these earworms could help students learn the content they are having difficulty with?

When it comes to memorising, our brains seek out patterns and associations. Probably the most simple example of this is when we use well-known rhymes to teach children important things; the alphabet song for example, has the exact same melody as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Therefore, the power of a musical hook is undeniable; how many of us can still remember songs that we haven’t heard in years, word for word? I know I can, and I’m certainly not alone in that. And there are some studies that suggest we don’t even need to hear the tune to activate the link between music and memory, often the words are enough (Cady et al, 2008).

Proved wrong

As the above conversation with my son unfolded, he explained to me that listening to music helped him concentrate. Still a little sceptical, I decided to put the idea to the test. I thought that if I could put together the information he needed in a way that he also found enjoyable, then maybe he’d be able to learn in a more effective way. I took the instrumental of Fat Joe’s song ‘Lean Back’ and recorded some physics information that he’d been struggling with as the lyrics. I then played it to him: my son lost his mind - he loved it!

Two weeks later he told me he was in school and the topic of conversation in his physics class was the information I’d recorded; all of a sudden he was able to recall the information, just like he would song lyrics, and recite all the correct answers back to his teacher!

A former cynic, I now wholeheartedly believe that, when used correctly, music can be a massive help to students’ learning. For me, the proof is in the pudding, or in my son’s exam results as it were. His attitude to studying, particularly when it came to his least favourite subjects, completely changed once he started using music as an effective study aid; recalling complex information became as easy as ‘do re mi’, and who am I to argue with that?

Do you incorporate music into lessons? Let us know below.

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