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February 17, 2022

Why Your Learning Needs a Soundtrack:
3 Ways Music Can Help Your Brain Learn Better

5 min read
By Nicole Wright

How did you learn the alphabet? What about months of the year? Do you know a quick way to recall all the states of the USA?

Chances are you were taught a musical mnemonic device in school to help you remember long lists of important information; studies have found that using these musical mnemonics in learning content can boost recall by up to 20%.

Why? Because our brains are hard-wired to find patterns, and pattern detection is a crucial part of how humans learn and make decisions. Music, with its rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume, can stimulate and strike chords in us, changing the way our brains work and boosting our neuroplasticity.

The history of using music as a memory-boosting tool goes back further than you might think, with one of the most famous uses being the well-known “ABC song”, first copyrighted in 1835 by Charles Bradlee as a way for children to learn the letters of the alphabet (though the tune itself dates as far back as the 18th century).

In the present day, how might we take advantage of our brains’ predispositions to music? From the minds behind our Learning & Experience Design team, here are three ways to harness the power of music to boost engagement and help your learning content stick:

 

1) Music & Learning

Researchers at Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory found that if students slept whilst listening to the same music they had studied to during that day, they were able to remember 18% more information the next day in their exam. Not only did they remember concepts that they had been trained to solve, they were also able to apply this learning to new concepts.

Music-based training has also been found to improve verbal intelligence in children: an interactive training programme linking music and learning content in a range of motor, perceptual and cognitive tasks was able to boost cognitive performance in 90% of participants after only 20 days.

What does this mean for your learning?

If you’re looking to boost recall in your audiences, consider creating music for your learning sessions and experiences to hardwire your participants’ brains into remembering them. Alternatively, try having a set playlist for different parts of your training to help supercharge cognitive performance when it comes to crunch time.

 

2) Music and Processing

Research on music training has found that it can bolster our brain’s “auditory fitness” in a similar way to how exercise can impact our body’s physical fitness, priming us to better receive (and process) information that is being given to us.

An experiment using excerpts of Mozart’s music with varying tempos, for example, found that different kinds of background music can reliably help learners process information faster and still apply these learnings correctly.

Music has also been found to impact all parts of the body, not just the brain, including lowering hormones and blood pressure and raising or slowing heart rate.

What does this mean for your learning?

If you’re looking to inject some adrenaline into your learning experience, consider playing music with a fast tempo – your learners will feel more energised, and their brains will be able to process information faster. Conversely, try using slower-paced music if you’re looking to provide your participants with a quiet moment of reflection (and no, it doesn’t have to be Mozart…)

 

3) Music and Memory

Studies have shown that emotional stimuli, like songs, can cue “autobiographical memories” in our brains, transporting us back to our past and helping us remember old information. Music as a powerful memory-boosting tool is even used to treat people with memory loss, or to improve the cognitive function and quality of life of those with conditions such as dementia.

The memories that songs evoke in our brains are, interestingly, more often positive than negative. This unique relationship that music has with memory plays heavily on the brain’s propensity towards nostalgia, a powerful, protective tool that cushions our brains during times of crisis.

What does this mean for your learning?

Familiarity and nostalgia help us feel connected to people, creating a sense of belonging. Anthropologists use the word ‘communitas’ to refer to these moments of intense social togetherness. A shared memory with a generation or set of people, even if it is something as seemingly insignificant as the lyrics to a pop song, can make your learners feel considerably more connected.

Consider how music might be able to provide your audience with a new collective nostalgic memory that they’ll never forget, whether it be in the form of a cheesy background song, a mid-training flash mob, or even a Ceilidh for your organisation’s leadership team.

 

So whether you’re using music mnemonics to remember important acronyms or having a “pick-me-up” song to get your audience out of a slump, music is a powerful tool that can supercharge your learners’ brains and boost their emotion, language, speech and auditory processing.

 


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