Mozart and the Brain

musical-learningI remember sitting in the movie theater and hearing the da dum, da dum of the pending shark attack in Jaws and curling up in my seat as I watched the young woman swimming, unaware that her life was about to end. The music, before the image, alerted me to the danger and the shark approaching. As the music deepened and increased in volume and speed, so did my heartbeat. Although the outcome would have been the same, with or without the music, I cannot imagine my response being nearly as pronounced without it. To this day, just hearing those opening notes brings back the fear, and rapid heartbeat as well as the images of the carnage that took place and subsequently kept me out of the ocean for the next few years. Which leads me to the question, why does music evoke such a strong response and is it useful when we are teaching/learning?

From personal experience, I can tell you that I have music on all day while working unless I have a conference or something else I need to listen to. I find that it, particularly classic music, allows me to tune out all the extraneous noises from other people and conversations. I may or may not be tuned into the music, depending on what I am doing, but it does seem to help keep me on track. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, states that musicians, “are better able to pick out and pay attention to a specific sound in a roomful of distracting noises. (The fancy name for this is auditory stream segregation.)”. I’m not sure, but I think that is what happens to me when I listen to music as I work.

My experience with music is also consistent with what Chris Brewer, author of the book Soundtracks for Learning says is true for “Students of all ages – that includes adults – generally find that music helps them focus more clearly on the task at hand and puts them in a better mood for learning”. An example of this theory is shown in the Ron Clark Story, a TV movie based on the early teaching of Ron Clark as he struggles for ways to work with low achieving inner city students. The clip below shows how he used music to interest them in history:

Not only did Mr. Clark use music, he used music that had an emotional connection to the students’ lives. Rap was their music, so when he used it, even if he used it poorly, it created a connection between him, the students and the lesson. It was something they understood, in fact, better than he did, but his willingness to try and meet them where they lived gave them added incentive and enjoyment, which helped them to participate in the process in a way that using classical music or music from another era would not.

Robin Spielberg, a musician, spoke during her Ted Talk, about the healing power of music. She talked about her premature daughter and her use of music to calm and help heal her as she struggled to survive in the hospital and again later when she had trouble with her short term memory. She tried using music to teach her concepts that she could not remember, setting them to songs that seemed appropriate for the subject. The music was upbeat and soothing, which also helped her daughter to relax and enjoy the process while also signaling her brain to pay attention.

Studies also show that patients with Alzheimer’s and/or dementia benefit from music in their lives, particularly if the music is reminiscent of their earlier years. In Brain Rules, John Medina talks about the case of a 92 year old man, Henry Dryer, living in a nursing home. Mr. Dryer was, as neurologist Oliver Sacks stated “inert, maybe depressed, unresponsive and almost unalive.” When they put a headset on him with music his family said he loved, he immediately responded, by tapping his feet and moving his body and singing along. When the headset was removed, he continued to engage with the staff and his interviewer.

So, how do you add music to your teaching, particularly online? Add background music to your presentations. It may seem unnecessary, but it does help improve the level of attention and interest. Use music that is relevant to the audience. If you don’t know or need to create a presentation for a future class, be sure that the music is something that makes you want to dance or at least makes your brain sit up and pay attention. Mozart may or may not be a good fit, but I guarantee there is a music for every project.

Here are some sites that you can use to download free background music:

Be sure to change the music from time to time to keep the interest level, but be sure it doesn’t interfere with the learning process. Not only will it help your students learn, but it will be an enjoyable experience and a memory that lasts far beyond your class.








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