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The Effect of Music on Learning

By: Suzanne Elvidge BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 13 May 2013 |
 
Learning Music Memory Rhythm Pattern

Many students listen to music while they are studying, and say that it helps them learn. Many parents and teachers say that music is just distracting, and that students are better studying in silence. Who is right?

The Mozart Effect

In a study published in a scientific journal called Nature in 1993, some scientists asked three groups of students to listen to a piece of music by Mozart (sonata for two pianos in D major) or a relaxation tape for ten minutes, or just sit in silence for ten minutes. The students then did a ‘spatial reasoning’ test (a test about remembering shapes and imagining looking at objects from different directions), and the ones who had listened to the Mozart did better in the test. However, this effect only lasted for ten minutes. The researchers thought that the ‘Mozart effect’ happened because the brain uses the same pathways for listening to music and spatial reasoning.

Other groups of scientists have repeated the ‘Mozart effect’ experiment and have not managed to get the same results. This might mean that there was a problem in the original ‘Mozart effect’ experiment, or that the people who tried to repeat the experiment have done something differently, or have missed something out. Other experiments have shown that music does not have any effect on maths tests.

Verbal Memory

Taking part in musical activities and learning to play an instrument can improve verbal memory (the ability to remember words). The longer the training lasts, the better the improvement in the memory. So, there’s no excuse to give up the piano lessons!

Behaviour

Anecdotal evidence (things that people have seen, without carrying out scientific experiments) suggest that playing music can help learning in disruptive students or students with learning difficulties by making them calmer. In one experiment, Mozart’s orchestral music played in the background did seem to reduce the blood pressure, body temperature and pulse rate in a group students, and improve their co-ordination and behaviour.

Learning

Songs can help with learning by repeating words and putting them into patterns, rhythms and catchy tunes – for example, there are counting and spelling songs, and songs to help learn times tables. There are even songs to help students learn about advanced subjects like biochemistry, in ‘The Biochemist’s Song Book’!

Music may help learning by covering up other distracting sounds.

Testing It Out

Find a spatial reasoning test on the internet. Play Mozart to a group of people for ten minutes, play something from the charts to another group for ten minutes, and get a third group to sit in silence for ten minutes. Test each group straight away, and then again after an hour. Is there any difference between the groups immediately after listening, and is there the same difference after an hour?

Find a group of people who have are learning to play a musical instrument, and a group of people who have never played a musical instrument. Read the same list of words to people from each group, and see who remembers the most words.

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