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3 Fabulous Tools for Using Music to Enhance Learning

In nearly EVERY training I have done in the past 20 years, at least one (usually many more) teacher asks me about the music I use in my trainings. Why do they ask?

Because they experienced the impact of music on their own learning and they want to replicate it for their own students. If you’ve ever wondered about the DOs and (absolute) DON’Ts of music in the classroom, lean in. Time to get your facts and strategies straight on music.

The Research 

Last month we dove into TWO of the THREE main sensory contributors to learning: sight and touch. We promised we’d be back to finish off with the third, sounds, and here we are.

Together, sight, touch, and sound, are the BIG 3 physical environmental factors in a classroom that impact attention, problem-solving, and memory (Xiong et al., 2018). Understanding how these factors impact learning AND what you can do about them is critical for your students’ success.

There are many types of sounds that contribute to the classroom experience. Some are productive and others compete with quality learning. Before we dive into the topic of music, a quick note on some of the most disruptive sounds to learning.

Disruptive Sounds

Extraneous sounds can significantly disrupt a students’ ability to process and store language. This effect has been repeatedly shown in studies of schools near airports, train stations, airports, and other sources of intermittent loud noises (Klatte, Meis, Sukowski, & Schick, 2007).

If your school is adjacent to a loud source of extraneous noise (airport, highway, etc.), work to minimize the sound by keeping the windows and doors closed. Loud air conditioning units, the humming from the motor of a computer, overhead projector, or other electronics, it can also be distracting and negatively impact learning.

Why? It is likely due to the impact the volume has on the student’s central nervous system – it provides too much stimulus to the point of becoming a mild stressor that impairs cognition (Xiong et al., 2018). Leave yourself little notes to remind you to turn off any machine you are not using.

With the main sources of distracting sounds mitigated, here is what the science actually says about the potential for positive roles for in learning.

The Science of Music

Music is a powerful medium. When listening to your favorite music, dopamine levels rise in your nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain, for pleasure and reward sensation (Mavridis, 2015).

But what about music’s impact on learning, not just pleasure? Chances are you’ve heard about the “Mozart Effect” – the landmark study that claimed that listening to music in the background actually improves learning (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993). Is that actually true?

The researchers claimed that it had a cognitive impact. The problem is that the study has never been successfully replicated (the gold standard in science). Critics claimed that the study was only showing the effects of state-dependent influence (and they turned out to be right).

Years later, most researchers agree that listening to music influences your state, or mood. Students in a positive state, in short, learn better. Therefore, listening to music that positively influences your emotional, physical, and mental state has been shown to improve learning (Lehmann & Seufert, 2017).

To get the cognitive and self-regulation skills the exposure to music has to be in music training, not merely listening. This leads us to remind you that learning to play a musical instrument DOES enhance general intelligence (not just auditory skills) via cognitive functions, such as spatial (Sluming et al., 2007), mathematical and memory (Hansen, Wallentin & Vuust, 2013), executive functions (Saarikivi K., Putkinen V., Tervaniemi M., Huotilainen), and non-verbal (Forgeard et al., 2008) abilities. While learning to play instruments is the gold-standard for brain building let’s focus on what we can do with less.

There are three main factors of music to be aware of: tempo, and the presence of lyrics, and familiarity. Let’s start with lyrics.

Lyrics: Whether it is appropriate to use songs with lyrics or not is a matter of context. The evidence shows that music with lyrics disturbs learners more than non-lyrical music (Perham & Currie, 2015). Lyrical music is best reserved for activities that do not involve memory formation (cleaning up; finding a partner; passing in papers; greeting at the door; celebrating mastery of a concept; moving into group seating arrangement, etc.).

When students are engaged in an activity that requires more executive function (writing, reading, worked problems, group discussions, assessments, etc.) non-lyrical music is best at a low volume. The lyrics of music, even in the background, can interfere with processing and contribute to cognitive load (Lehmann & Seufert, 2017).

EXCEPTION: I use music with lyrics for affirmation AFTER A TASK. After a discussion on optimism, “Turn to your partner and say, ‘Stay positive’ (cue song with same lyrics), and head back to your seat.”

Tempo: With regard to tempo, there is a synchronicity that happens between the music you listen to and your heart and respiratory rate (Koelsch & Jäncke, 2015).In short, the faster the music, the faster the pulse. It is the tempo that is credited for facilitating the positive state that is attributed to better learning (Husain, Thompson, & Schellenberg, 2002).A wise teacher can use this to help facilitate the ideal state for a learning activity. More specifics on how are right below.

The tempo of music playing also influences the speed in which you move your body. Your likely guess is supported by the research: the faster the tempo, the faster you walk (Levitin, Grahn, & London, 2018; Leman et al., 2013). What is also worth noting is this: you move faster to songs you are familiar with and like (Leow, Rinchon, & Grahn, 2015; Leow, Parrott, & Grahn, 2014).

In other words, be sure your classroom playlist is school appropriate AND “student approved”.

Familiarity: Familiar music can bring people together. Learning a new language with familiar music playing can enhance learning (Fonseca-Mora, & Machancoses, 2016). Common musical themes in groups can enhance participation, trust and bonding. We see this effect in pop concerts where complete strangers can feel “in sync” with each other when dancing or repeating lyrics of songs they know.

In the classroom, research confirms the synchronized harmony effect when students hear or make familiar music via singing, chanting, clapping, dancing, or marching (Novembre, Mitsopoulos, & Keller, 2019). In other words, be sure your classroom playlist is school appropriate AND “student approved”. Recent evidence confirms that this familiarity can also enhance cognition (Mogan, Fischer, & Bulbulia, 2017). Remember, to initiate learning, our brain requires getting in a state of readiness, and music can accelerate that process with minimal effort (and often much joy).

How does all this research translate into making your life easier in the classroom and improving student learning and behavior? Here is what it all means for you and your students.

Practical Application

Here are 3 music tools to support student learning: 1) Use it to foster more productive behaviors, 2) use music for learning content, 3) use these tools to you get more effective at using music in your workplace.

  1. Foster More Productive Student Behavior

Tired of giving students the same set of directions day after day after day? “Ok class, please start cleaning up; Everyone please pass in your homework; It’s time to line up for lunch; Everyone start your silent reading”. Instead of repeating these directions hundreds of times each year, use music to facilitate these specific behaviors with an “anchor song.”

An anchor song is a specific song that is “anchored” to a specific task. Teach your students that every time they hear the Mission Impossible theme song or “On Top of the World”, for example, it is time to clean up and return to their seat, with the goal that everyone is back in their seat by the time the song ends. Work with them to learn the cues, and practice with them. Remember to consider whether lyrics are appropriate and choose a tempo that matches the task. A quick clean up needs a different song than “get ready for our yoga and mindfulness minute”.

Naturally, students don’t always enter your classroom in the best state for your upcoming learning activity. Sometimes they are jittery before an exam, sluggish in the morning, and bouncing off the walls after recess. Whatever state they are in, let music help you do the critical work of nudging students into the best state for what is coming next.

Use calming music in your classroom to reduce anxiety or nervousness before a presentation, exam, during a writing activity, or when they come back from recess with too much silly energy. Use energizing music to get them pumped up before an activity, keep their energy up after lunch, or when moving between stations. The key is to recognize what state your students are in, decide what state would be more useful, and then choose appropriate music to get them there.

I’ve even worked with schools that have replaced school bells with a song. A short, well-known clip of a song informs students class is beginning soon. When it ends, class begins with students in a more positive state for learning.Using music that students know and like in your classroom can be a game-changer.

  1. Use Music to Learn Content.

Here are just three ways the lyrics of a song can help improve student learning:

Use songs to teach critical academic content through song mnemonics. The most common example is how we all learned our ABCs to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Rewriting the lyrics of songs to be about academic content is a powerful learning tool that loses pedagogical popularity as students get into middle school and high school. Songsforteaching.com has a large selection of song mnemonics for all subjects and grade levels. Or simply Google® “songs to teach (insert your subject)”.

To all you secondary teachers – let’s revive this useful learning tool. This strategy is most useful to tunes students are familiar with (Tamminen, Rastle, Darby, Lucas, & Williamson, 2017) so ditch the nursery rhymes and have your students help you create a rap or rewrite an Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, or Post Malone tune. Google® helped me upgrade my song mnemonic for the Quadratic Formula from a Row, Row, Row Your Boat remix to a well-received rap. Here is one to learn all 206 bones of the human body!

Use popular songs to teach and reinforce critical life skills you are teaching your students. There is nothing like a catchy pop tune to remind students to stand up for what is right, be brave, or make the most of every day. Songs with positive lyrics are a quick Google® search away. One of my new favorites is Brave by Sara Bareilles.

  1. Tools for Using Music in Your Classroom.

There are some very powerful insights, resources, and tools you can use, but truthfully, we don’t have space here for them. We’ve bundled them all into an amazing, detailed and practical special report. Interested? This energy-packed resource is yours, and it’s free. Just CLICK HERE and enjoy the download.

Keep tweaking your uses of music with your students and enjoy the benefits of better learning and students in a better mood. Try it out and let us know how it goes. 

Citations:

Fonseca-Mora, M. C., & Machancoses, F. H. (2016). 16 Music and Language Learning: Emotions and Engaging Memory Pathways. Positive psychology in SLA97, 359.

Forgeard M., Winner E., Norton A., Schlaug G. (2008). Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. PLoS One 3:e3566. 10.1371/journal.pone.0003566

Hansen M., Wallentin M., Vuust P. (2013). Working memory and musical competence of musicians and non-musicians. Psychol. Music 41 779–793.

Husain, G., Thompson, W. F., & Schellenberg, E. G. (2002). Effects of musical tempo and mode on arousal, mood, and spatial abilities. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal20(2), 151-171.

Klatte, M., Meis, M., Sukowski, H., & Schick, A. (2007). Effects of irrelevant speech and traffic noise on speech perception and cognitive performance in elementary school children. Noise and Health9(36), 64.

Koelsch, S., & Jäncke, L. (2015). Music and the heart. European heart journal36(44), 3043-3049.

Lehmann, J. A., & Seufert, T. (2017). The influence of background music on learning in the light of different theoretical perspectives and the role of working memory capacity. Frontiers in psychology8, 1902.

Leman, M., Moelants, D., Varewyck, M., Styns, F., van Noorden, L., & Martens, J. P. (2013). Activating and relaxing music entrains the speed of beat synchronized walking. PloS one8(7), e67932.

Leow, L. A., Rinchon, C., & Grahn, J. (2015). Familiarity with music increases walking speed in rhythmic auditory cuing. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1337(1), 53-61.

Leow, L. A., Parrott, T., & Grahn, J. A. (2014). Individual differences in beat perception affect gait responses to low-and high-groove music. Frontiers in human neuroscience8, 811.

Levitin, D. J., Grahn, J. A., & London, J. (2018). The psychology of music: Rhythm and movement. Annual review of psychology69, 51-75.

Mavridis, I. N. (2015). Music and the nucleus accumbens. Surgical and radiologic anatomy37(2), 121-125.

Mogan, R., Fischer, R., & Bulbulia, J. A. (2017). To be in synchrony or not? A meta-analysis of synchrony’s effects on behavior, perception, cognition and affect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology72, 13-20.

Novembre, G., Mitsopoulos, Z., & Keller, P. E. (2019). Empathic perspective taking promotes interpersonal coordination through music. Scientific reports9(1), 1-12.

Perham, N., & Currie, H. (2015). Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance?

Putkinen, V., Tervaniemi, M., Saarikivi, K., & Huotilainen, M. (2015). Promises of formal and informal musical activities in advancing neurocognitive development throughout childhood. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1337(1), 153-162.

Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, C. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature365(6447), 611-611.

Saarikivi K., Putkinen V., Tervaniemi M., Huotilainen M. (2016). Cognitive flexibility modulates maturation and music-training-related changes in neural sound discrimination. Eur. J. Neurosci. 441815–1825.

Sluming, V., Brooks, J., Howard, M., Downes, J. J., & Roberts, N. (2007). Broca’s area supports enhanced visuospatial cognition in orchestral musicians. Journal of Neuroscience27(14), 3799-3806.

Tamminen, J., Rastle, K., Darby, J., Lucas, R., & Williamson, V. J. (2017). The impact of music on learning and consolidation of novel words. Memory25(1), 107-121.

Xiong, L., Huang, X., Li, J., Mao, P., Wang, X., Wang, R., & Tang, M. (2018). Impact of Indoor Physical Environment on Learning Efficiency in Different Types of Tasks: A 3× 4× 3 Full Factorial Design Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health15(6), 1256.

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