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How does music affect the learning experience?

As a learning designer, I was recently approached to source music for a papermation course. This raised some questions about music in learning and set me down a new thought path. Can music enhance the learning experience? If so, how and what type of music is more suitable? Does it have to be relevant to the learning, or indeed, to the learner?

With the digital age and mobile technologies, it has never been easier to find and stream music; just look at the success of platforms like Spotify and YouTube. As a universal language, music is used in every walk of life, culture and environment.

But the way we consume music has changed significantly. As lifestyles become busier, music is rarely something we enjoy exclusively. It is successfully used to motivate exercise in the gym, enhance visual experience in movies and games and sell everything from food to luxury items in advertisements.

Music in learning - Woman with headphones using an iPad

Is music important in the learning environment?

The potential to enhance children’s learning experiences through music has long been a fascinating issue for teachers and scientists. There’s no doubt that songs are an effective and fun way to present a story and music has successfully been used to help children learn maths. Although tastes change through life, the medium is important at every stage of human development. We don’t stop listening… in the same way that we don’t stop learning.

Does music help or hinder the learning environment?

Certainly, music can add meaningful context by making the experience personally relevant and authentic for the learner, raising attention with emotional charge. Students in multisensory learning environments can do better than those in unisensory environments; evidence has shown that it can increase accuracy, harvest longer-lasting recall and improve problem-solving skills. So music can help with recall, but tests on retention and transfer have also shown irrelevant background music can lead to poorer student performance.

One study found music without lyrics had the best effect on students’ learning. It also suggests that listening to something familiar can produce better results because there is no longer thought involved. Are some rhythms, colours and tones more distracting than others? Certainly, it is argued that some rhythms can disturb the human brain negatively, that different tempos can affect memory in the brain and that higher frequencies can heighten attention (for further reading see ‘The Praeger Handbook of Learning and the Brain’).

So, does noise annoy?

We know learners are all different. Why not let them choose whether they listen while they learn; why not even allow them to select what they listen to? Sure, it all boils down to cost, copyrights and licenses, but we are in the era of Creative Commons Music Communities. Digital music platforms such as Soundcloud are only a link away and have the potential to offer a vast pool of music, which could be just as valuable a resource to learning as it has been in other environments, allowing the user more control to personalise their learning environment with something they already find engaging and relevant. Matching the learner to their taste in music has the potential to enrich their learning through motivation and engagement, but there needs to be more research on how the brain processes information whilst listening to music before we turn the volume slider up to eleven!

I would like to hear you thoughts on the use of music in learning. Please get in touch or leave a comment below. If you’d like to read more about audio and learning, take a look at our this post.

Music in learning - Man with headphones on

This post was written by Gordon Kaye and first appeared on the Epic blog on 23rd August 2013.