5 Practical Ways to Use Music to Promote Learning
The correlation between music and learning remains a frequent topic of research and inquiry. Whether it’s listening or playing, studies clearly show that music can positively impact the brain’s ability to engage with and learn content.
Of course, there’s more to maximizing this relationship between music and learning than simply popping in some earbuds or cranking up a boom box. There are some surprisingly deep-dives into the specifics of how to capitalize on this relationship with purposeful musical selections. Some studies even go so far as to correlate one’s expected SAT performance to the genre of music they prefer.
So given what we know about music’s positive impacts, how can all of this knowledge be harnessed to improve the educational experience for our students and clients?
The best educators don’t simply push play; they find meaningful ways to incorporate music into best practices. Whether you are a teacher, a tutor, or a test-prep professional, here are five practical ways you can infuse music into your pedagogy and help boost your students’ chances for success:
1. Musical Mindfulness
One of the most direct and powerful impacts music can have is its capacity to regulate and affect emotional responses. With the right combination of volume, environment, and purpose, music can become the vehicle for centering and de-stressing students in preparation for learning.
Consider building in time before or during particularly stressful learning activities to allow your students structured opportunities to calm themselves. Adding in music can be an effective way to help not only block out outside noise but create a focal point for meditation.
There are plenty of examples of streaming playlists available to help you and your students do just that. Experiment with what works and share with colleagues!
2. Drop the beat!
Rhythm is an undeniable force. If someone hears a pronounced, rhythmic beat, odds are their body will respond in some physical way; they may sway, clap, nod their head, even dance!
What’s especially interesting for educators is that our brains are also wired to mentally engage with rhythm. According to multiple studies including Chris Boyd Brewer’s work Music & Learning “[w]hen information is put to rhythm and rhyme these musical elements will provide a hook for recall.”
Furthermore, rhythm’s positive impacts on the body and the mind can be combined to add a kinesthetic component to learning experiences. Incorporating both rhythm and motion creates a multi-sensory experience that can be especially productive for energetic students who struggle with focus and attention.
In my classroom and with my tutoring clients I have put these techniques into practice in several ways:
- Students rehearsed and recorded an album of their multiplication facts sung and rapped over hip-hop instrumental records (we even invited parents in for a “record release” party!)
- Students turned vocabulary and definitions into rhythmic phrases to help with retention
- Students prepared for academic engagement with rhythm exercises and call-and-response games
- I created a cloud-based playlist of music dialed in to the 50-80 beats per minute range for students to use during independent work time to help promote engagement and retention
3. Educational Tunes
In some cases, music can be an ideal delivery method for new knowledge. There’s a reason why children’s shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood have long used music as such an integral part of their educational programming; it works! Even in my 30s, I continue to draw upon the grammar skills I learned from the songs of Schoolhouse Rock.
As an educator of older students, I’ve used They Might Be Giants and Bill Nye the Science Guy music videos to help demonstrate headier science concepts to kids. While there are some eye rolls at first, I hear the tunes hummed (or even sung in full voice) in the hallway in the days after I share them in class.
Educational music is nothing new and, thanks to the ubiquity of streaming audio and video content, there are more options available to educators than ever. When looking for a new way to introduce a concept, finding musical examples can be a great option.
The psychological hooks of pop music, rhythm, melody, and harmony can activate multiple areas of the brain and help make key terms and concepts stick; the musical memory should make it easier when it comes time to recall or apply the information down the road.
4. Use Songs to Tell the Story
Sometimes the music itself tells the story of a time or circumstance. Seeking out the music that was a part of an historical moment can bring that moment to life. For instance, by examining the creation, content, and impact of protest music, students can gain authentic insights into a particular time, place, and culture.
Songs can also be used as prompts to spark writing or discussion. The natural link between music and emotion helps to draw out ideas and contributions that may not have come to the surface otherwise.
In both of these cases, music activates the brain and adds a degree of life and authenticity to what could have been a flat, uninspiring learning experience.
5. Adding Music Creation as a Student Choice Option
One of the most powerful ways to incorporate music into your students’ learning experiences is to actually teach them how to create music themselves. While there is debate as to how the correlation between making music and cognitive function actually works, studies indicate that there is, at the very least, a positive link between playing music and cognitive skills.
Teachers and tutors can capitalize on this relationship by offering opportunities to create music as a part of a differentiated approach to instruction.
When asking students to organize new knowledge, offer the option to create musical products. A simple approach would be to have students create educational parody versions of well-known songs to demonstrate what they have learned and, at the same time, create a musical tool that could help others.
For a more genuine experience, incorporate instruments and/or backing tracks and have students create original music. The products can be recorded with analog tape recorders, pre-loaded computer software, or even with smart devices. Just as with the parody song idea, find ways to share student creations as learning tools to support peers.
Regardless of how you flesh out the idea, offering students the chance to actually create music rather than just listen to it can be both empowering and intellectually rewarding!
There are countless ways music can transform both focus and learning. How have you used music to help students? Share your practical suggestions with our readers in the comments below!