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How Music Helps Enhance Learning

by | Dec 7, 2022

Humans love music. We spend over 32 hours listening to music every week.

From electric guitars to nose-flutes, music can be found in every nook and cranny of the globe. In fact, it’s one of the only remaining cultural universals amongst our species.

With this important role that music plays across the world within our daily lives, it’s surprising to find a general lack of adoption throughout our education system. Many schools and districts have even placed restrictions on the use of music as a tool for learning in the classroom. Claiming a distraction, schools have taken measures to block music streaming websites and access to YouTube, which provides many reputable learning resources.

One fact cannot be denounced: listening to music in inappropriate situations (aka one earbud in while trying to listen to a lecture) are certainly distracting and detrimental to learning.

However, extensive research tends to point toward the positive in terms of using music in the classroom to improve learning outcomes. Within the proper context and situation, music can help students learn and actually enhance learning experiences.

While studying music composition and theory certainly has considerable effects on the human brain, the pure passivity of listening to music also shows profound benefits for learning.

Today, we’ll explore the reasons why music helps enhance learning, for all students in any classroom. Whether you’re teaching science, history, mathematics, or language, music can be a helpful tool to improve learning experiences for your students.

Here’s what the research says:


1. Music helps create a positive learning environment

Humans have a hard time learning when they’re stressed out.

Our brain and body must be in a state of calmness to gear up for learning. Studies have shown that using background music in the classroom provided an increased level of positivity and calmness in students (and teachers, too!). Students showed normalized levels of body temperature, blood pressure, and pulse rate translating to reduced anxiety, frustration, and aggressive behavior.

Researchers in a 2009 study examined the effect of music and the learning environment in a physiology classroom. Their findings indicated that playing music consistently throughout the term helped provide emotional support during stressful peaks and a feeling of safety within the classroom.

And many students will tell you that themselves! In a 2003 survey of college-level science students, 75% of science students reported that the use of music while entering class made them feel more comfortable in the classroom.

In turn, a peaceful learning environment can lead to more student participation. This could mean a peaking level of interest and engagement when students watch the newest Jam Campus song. Activities such as singing along or dancing are all signs that students are engaged in your lesson and actively learning. And these are activities that students of all ages can enjoy.

Yes, I’m looking at you High Schoolers. You’re never too cool to stand up in the middle of class and dance to a song about cells.


2. Music can improve memory recall


Music and memory have a powerful, well-established connection within our brain.

Your favorite childhood song pops on the radio and you’re instantly transported back to those exact feelings and emotions you’ve previously felt. There’s a reason why you remember all of the lyrics of a song, yet you can’t remember what you had for breakfast. Those neural connections between music and memory are strong and enduring.

Researchers at John Hopkins University claim that integrating music into a classroom setting can improve students memory and recall of the target learning material. Whether you’re playing an emotional song about World War II or a strong upbeat rhythm to help explain electricity, music helps activate the information mentally, physically, and emotionally.

And good news for using content-based learning songs, such as Jam Campus songs: when specific learning content is put to a rhyme and rhythm, the elements provide a hook for improved memory recall.

These types of songs work to improve short-term memory in our brain similar to the way mnemonic devices operate. Although rote memorization is far from the intended goal of learning and education on a broader scale, content-based songs may help students in the short term to memorize key lists, definitions, relationships and establish a foundation of vocabulary.

Content-based learning songs have also been shown to help students structure information into a specific, calculated pattern. And our brain loves patterns!

As we process these sensory inputs from a musical song, our brain is synchronously determining patterns to predict what will come next.

Along with predicting patterns, our brain also has a deep-seated love for surprises, releasing dopamine into our system and bringing us attention and inspiration.

When we listen to a song, we’re subconsciously detecting patterns while the music builds up anticipation. Most often that anticipation is satisfied.  However, when a slight variation in the song occurs and provides a surprise to our brain, our emotional senses are activated creating an enhanced memorable experience.


3. Music helps solidify a foundation of concepts

Educators, specifically in the field of science, continue to stress the importance of students understanding simple vocabulary within a subject before being able to move on to more complex concepts.

A strong, foundational grasp of vocabulary helps students to make relational connections to larger concepts.

Along with textbooks, lectures and in-class activities, content-based songs provide students with an alternate method of understanding the basics. Research shows that alternate learning methods allow students opportunities to connect ideas and organize information through their own meaning.

This concept aligns with the constructivist perspective, claiming that content-based songs can help students to build meaning of in-depth concepts in their own meaning and on their own terms.


4. Music helps boost engagement and motivation

The word, “engagement,” is thrown around a lot in the realm students in the classroom.

To define the term, engagement is “the student’s psychological investment in an effort directed toward learning, understanding or mastering the knowledge, skills or crafts that academic work is intended to promote.”

Engagement is critical for learning. When authentically engaged, students show massive improvements in academic achievement and motivation to continue learning.

The use of daily popular music in the classroom has been shown to engage students by having to actively seek out meaning to song lyrics and selections. In this study, many students were reported to be actively singing along, joking about the music, or spending considerable time in thought about the relation of the song lyrics.

One reason why songs and YouTube music videos may help engage students is due to younger generations intimacy with digital technology. Modern research suggests that educators can help engage and motivate learning by using methods of familiar technologies.

And while proper learning and instruction techniques are certainly important, sometimes just a single spark of interest and inspiration is all a student needs. Research suggests that, regardless of instructional technique, students can learn as long as they are sufficiently motivated and actively engaged in classroom discussions and activities.


5. Music makes learners happier

Research from Patrick Quinn & Angela Duckworth shows that happier students outperform their peers academically, even when controlling for factors such as IQ and past academic performance.

Additionally, experts from Stanford University claim that student happiness is a vital factor for predicting academic performance. To maximize happiness, they suggest that teachers design learning activities that capture attention and increase student collaboration and involvement.

And integrating music into the classroom is a great learning activity to start with.

Researchers from the University of Missouri found that happy and upbeat music was successful at raising peoples positive moods and happiness.

One reason is that when listening to music, our brain releases dopamine, which has been known to put us in a state of good feelings. Our dopamine levels can be up to 9% higher when we are listening to a tune we enjoy.

For some students, music has also been shown to make homework more enjoyable. When learning specifically from content-based songs, music serves as a relatable method of learning with an added bonus of boosting positive moods.

2013 survey of students in a college classroom found that 59/60 (98%) students shared strong positive attitudes toward the use of content-based learning songs in the classroom.

Using music to boost happiness will certainly not work for every student in every situation. But if there is anything we can do as educators to boost involvement and aid in the happiness of students, it’s worth a shot to give it a try.


6. Music helps improve student/teacher relationships

Even today, students tend to have a relatively stuffy perception of teachers. Recent surveys of K-12 students indicate that only 31% of students feel that their teachers make school an exciting place to learn.

As educators, shouldn’t we do all we can to inspire our students?

Along with smiling more often and having a sense of humor, teachers can also use music to establish long-term positive relationships with their students.

The use of music in the classroom can serve to remove barriers of students traditional expectations of their teacher. By using music and songs that students are familiar and comfortable with, the teacher appears more relaxed, relatable, and approachable.

In one study, an instructor played popular music every session as students entered the classroom. At the end of the term, 74% of the students reported that the music had a positive effect on their impression of the teacher. Many students noted the use of songs showed that their teacher actually cared about their learning, in turn, strengthening the student/instructor relationship.


How to use this information:

The above has hopefully provided a thorough overview of why music enhances student learning experiences. Naturally, the next step would be techniques for applying music in the classroom. We’ll certainly be providing more in-depth ideas on using this, but here are a few tips to try for now:

– Use background music: at the beginning of class or during quiet work time
– Play content-based songs: to introduce a subject, try playing a content-based learning song (such as a Jam Campus song) about your topic.
– Have students find a song related to your in-class topic: This one is good as a homework assignment. If you’re teaching about the Cold War, have students find a song from the time period with lyrics that allude to the Cold War. Then, have them analyze the lyrics. The Cold War is a good one because it was such an emotional time for the world that the events influence many song lyrics, but there are many other historical events where this assignment could apply.

Music is a powerful classroom learning tool when used in the proper situation. To create a positive learning environment, improve recall and enhance students overall learning experiences, see how you can begin to creatively integrate music into your classroom.

About the Author:

Andrew DeBell is a learning experience strategist and content developer on the customer education team at Atlassian. Connect with him on LinkedIn for more.