Suggesting that students create a playlist to accompany revision may sound like an abstract idea, but there is solid research to suggest that music not only enhances memory, but also puts the listener in the right frame of mind for learning. More obviously, of course, this is a bit of “homework” that will probably get the thumbs-up from most students, which can help to make the process of revision less daunting and, even, fun.
First of all, a number of studies have found that listening to music that people find pleasurable increases the release of dopamine (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter) in the brain. This makes associated activities more enjoyable, and also activates the “reward centre” of the brain, which encourages motivation and interest.
In fact, when dopamine is present during an event of experience, we are much more likely to remember it. In its absence, learning is much more difficult. Chris Brewer, author of Soundtracks for Learning, says that music can encourage us to pay attention, and it evokes emotions and stimulates visual image, while putting students in a better mood for learning.
She suggests using music throughout the day as a form of “positive mood management” and recommends upbeat popular music to motivate learning (particularly those with lyrics that encourage positive thinking), and instrumental classical music (in particular, Bach, Handel or Mozart) while revising, writing or reading, to sustain concentration.
Creating a playlist with this in mind can also help to provide structure for revision sessions – literally “soundbites” in which learning can be achieved. Two motivational songs, followed by Bach for history, Handel for maths, Mozart for German, or whatever!
The important thing is to choose music that does not have “speech-like” sounds (or indeed any lyrics) for the “learning” part of revision, as this will attract part of the brain’s attention capacity.
As an aid to learning, music has long been used to promote memory. In fact, some scientists believe that the part of the brain that responds to music evolved long before the parts related to language. David C Rubin, from Duke University, has shown that long stories such as The Iliad and The Odyssey were passed down using poetic devices – chants, songs and poems – in order for them to be recalled accurately.
Songs, chants, poems, and even raps can all help improve memory of content facts and details through rhyme, rhythm and melody. Most of us can remember at least some of the nursery rhymes we learned as children and there is good reason for that.
Students can be encouraged to write songs or raps (which effectively become mnemonics), using course material as lyrics and any music as a backdrop. Choosing a song and replacing the lyrics with formulae, phrases or facts can be a vivid way of learning and remembering.
Or they can simply revise with music in the background. When the same music is consistently used for particular subjects, learning and understanding will be enhanced and memory cemented. One idea is to read aloud revision notes (the periodic table, quotes from a novel, Latin declensions, French verbs, historical facts) and record them with music in the background. On an iPod, in the car, or even while relaxing the recording can be played to consolidate learning and fix material more firmly in the brain.
Alongside regular revision, music can not only make the whole experience more pleasurable, but more productive, too. Best of all, there will be few students that will not leap at the prospect of producing a playlist.
Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email firstname.lastname@example.org