How many poems can you recall by heart? Compare this to the number of songs you can probably sing with barely a thought.
Music helps us learn and remember. There are a number of ways music works on our brains.
Music helps us focus
Just like eating chocolate, listening to music can be pleasurable which releases dopamine. We are more likely to learn when we are in a good mood, so the act of listening to music that is uplifting, promotes a positive emotional state, which in turn makes us more receptive to learning.
But not only is dopamine a feel-good hormone, it is a chemical transmitter, which means it functions to communicate messages within the brain as well as between the brain and the body. The result of this is a focussing of attention, in other words, listening to music can help us feel happy which helps us engage and focus.
Music increases memory
We can remember more information when it is set against a tune. Listening to Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe sing the elements of the periodic table is a case in point. Listening to the same piece of music when learning a particular topic, can also have the effect of creating a retrieval cue, which helps when trying to recall the information at a later time.
When learning becomes multi-sensory, incorporating sound, sight, touch and movement, different parts of the brain become involved, memories are stored in multiple regions, and interconnectivity is increased. This can potentially lead to more creative or out-of-the-box insights, because as more areas of the brain become involved, connections between seemingly distinct or unrelated ideas can be made.
Music moulds the brain
For those lucky enough to learn a musical instrument or other forms of musical engagement, the brain can actually undergo structural and functional changes, known as neuroplasticity, which helps the brain adapt, change and reorganise itself over a lifetime. Like a muscle at peak fitness, when the brain is primed for adaption, it performs at a higher level under a variety of circumstances and impacts other skills including speech and language as well as memory and focus.
Video game music designed for purpose
Parents will reluctantly agree that the music that provides a backdrop to many video games is absorbing and energetic and seems specifically created to keep the player focussed. The success of this custom-designed music is so great, that there are now hugely popular Spotify playlists of Mario Kart songs designed specifically for people to study to.
So should students be able to listen to music in class?
Despite the benefits of music for learning, it’s not as straight-forwarded as playing Rachmaninov for reading lessons and Motzart for maths. Individual responses to music vary and while it can help some people focus and concentrate, for others it can prove a distraction that diverts from learning. We’d probably also caution before playing the Mario Kart soundtrack over the school PA during NAPLAN.
But depending on the nature of the task, the individual students and the class environment, allowing classes to listen to music either as a group or through their own headphones, could be a positive experience that promotes learning.
Leave a comment and tell us if you allow your students to listen to music during class!