Using music to stimulate learning

Can music really stimulate learning? There’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest that it just might.

What do the following have in common – Mozart’s Divertimenti for Winds, John Coltrane’s Ballads, and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells? According to professor Daniel Levitin, these pieces of music all enhance listeners’ moods when they are studying or learning. His research-backed assertion is the latest in a line of studies that indicate certain types of music may stimulate learning.

Earlier this year, Levitin – who directs the Laboratory for the Study of Music Cognition, Perception and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal – gave details of a study into how music affects the brain and personality. His researchers measured listeners’ responses to music across various measurable functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and brain waves.

A chemical response

From this, Levitin, a musician and former record producer, drew the conclusion that the music people enjoy not only entertains but can also stimulate the mind. He asserts that music can act like a chemical response on the brain, elevating feelings.

“Music is effective at moderating arousal levels, concentration and helping to regulate moods through its action on the brain’s natural chemistry,” he says.

“The research shows that people who use music during their daily lives effectively provide feelings of comfort, arousal and both mental and physical fitness.”

Levitin’s research and conclusion will provide comfort to those in training and L&D who believe music should be used in classroom-based sessions to stimulate delegates. One such advocate is Kimberley Hare, managing director of Hertfordshire L&D provider Kaizen Training, who also runs courses on music and training. She says the use of music in training is more mainstream than ever.

“I can’t think of any circumstances where I wouldn’t use music, at least some of the time,” she adds.

For anyone thinking of using music in their training sessions, Hare says the most important factor to consider is the emotional state they want to create among delegates. There are, she says, five basic uses:

  • Entry music for setting the scene or breaking the ice
  • Anchor music, which reconnects delegates to learning after a break
  • Lyrics that can underscore a particular learning message
  • Music that changes delegates’ moods from, say, reflection to high energy
  • Background music to create a calm state so that delegates are responsive to learning factual information.

Hare adds that it is also useful for anyone using music in training to understand the basics about why certain kinds of music should be used in different classroom situations. These concern the relationships between brain rhythms and beats per minute of the heart or the music.

For example, in a delta state of deep, dreamless sleep, the brainwave rhythms are 0.5 to 3 cycles per second while the heart is resting. In the beta state brainwave rhythms are 13 to 40 cycles per minute while the heart thumps along at 80 plus beats per minute.

But, says Hare, the alpha state is the place to be, learning-wise. There brainwave rhythms are 8 to 12 cycles per second, while the heart pulses at 60 to 80 beats per minute.

It is a state of “aware relaxation that brings numerous advantages,” says Hare. These include a calm but alert mind, a stimulated imagination, heightened concentration, and a sense of detachment from outcomes. Meditation and particular types of music can help individuals attain the alpha state. Hare suggests music in the range 50 to 80 beats per minute, such as Baroque, as appropriate.

It has, though, been the music of Mozart that has been linked to improvements in learning or the raising of IQ. So much so, it has given rise to a theory dubbed the Mozart Effect. This expression was coined by French physician Alfred Tomatis, who believed high frequency sounds, such as those found in Mozart’s violin concertos, energise the brain. He also believed that such sound, picked up by an unborn baby’s ear, would help grow the brain of a foetus from as early as four and a half months.

Testing the Mozart Effect

In 1993, University of California physicist Gordon Shaw and cognitive development expert Francis Rauscher conducted an experiment to test the Mozart Effect. They played a group of college students the first 10 minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos. The result: they found a temporary increase (of 10 minutes) in the students’ spatial-temporal reasoning.

Since then the Mozart Effect has been rubbished and supported in almost equal measure. Not that the former has bothered the record industry, which has issued various CDs such as The Mozart Effect for Newborns. Latterly other composers’ works have been used, including Brahms whose works feature on Baby Needs Brahms.

But UK trainers who use music in the classroom have wider tastes. Training consultant Andrew Bradbury uses “mainly music from the Baroque period, plus Mozart”, while freelance trainer Nikki Brun plays “popular music that is fairly optimistic”.

Another freelance trainer, Eddie Newall, has used music while giving presentations to large groups. His choice: orchestral film themes such as Gone With The Wind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And another, Mark Starling, uses country and western and rodeo music.

Of course we can but wonder what recorded music would have raised Mozart’s brain game – the Pete Doherty Effect, perhaps?

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