Can songs help students learn?

Learning through a song may help students to better grasp the big picture
San Francisco Foghorn, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
San Francisco Foghorn, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Can the use of songs in school foster students’ learning? In 2018, Ulm University researchers Janina Lehmann and Tina Seufert published a study in Frontiers in Psychology that suggests that music may indeed have a place in the classroom.

Lehmann first became interested in the question of music and learning when she attended a ‘90s-themed party. She noticed that everyone knew all the words to the Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys songs they hadn’t heard in years. “I started wondering why it seems to be so easy to recall lyrics and thought that I would like to investigate this phenomenon.“

There aren’t many detailed studies about using songs as a learning tool. Even though some teachers use music as part of their curriculum, the benefits they see are often anecdotal. Mary McLellan is one of these teachers. She teaches an advanced statistics course at a high school in Texas, and has created a collection of several dozen very short songs about statistics concepts that she uses repeatedly during lessons. Her students report that the songs help reinforce what they learned in class, and that they still remember them months later.

But, it’s difficult to separate the direct effect of a song from the rest of a student’s classroom experience. How can we tell whether it’s really the music that fosters learning? To answer this question, Lehmann visited a German high school, where she divided the students (aged 12-19) into three groups. The first group was taught a history lesson about King Henry VIII by listening to a recording of a song. The second group listened to the same lyrics, but spoken instead of sung. The third group read the same text without audio support.

All students were then given the same test to determine how well they remembered and understood what they had learned. Lehmann found that students who had read the written text were better at remembering the information, but students who had listened to the song demonstrated a better comprehension of the material.

This difference is likely related to the different ways in which auditory and visual information are processed. Reading uses an additional processing step compared to listening. When we read a text, the information is processed in both visual and auditory channels, but when we listen to spoken or sung text, this bypasses the visual channel entirely. This makes processing of auditory information faster and comprehension easier – as long as there isn’t too much information.

When it comes to auditory information processing, Lehmann’s experiment showed a slight benefit of listening to a song compared to hearing the same text spoken. This effect could be due to the novelty factor of learning through music, or because the students enjoyed the melody. The act of learning through a song, for the first time, may have been enough motivation for students to focus more. On the other hand, the benefit of reading is that students can learn at their own pace and devote more attention to certain sections. So, while the students in this study were better able to grasp the big picture when they heard the text, they could better recall small details when they read it.

In a real-world classroom setting, reading and listening aren’t entirely separate. When teachers use a song in a lesson, it includes information that overlaps with what’s in the textbook. Sometimes students hear the song, and sometimes they read the text. Lehmann advises to not do both simultaneously, though: “Reading a text and listening to it (in a sung version) at the same time leads to problems integrating them and thereby to cognitive load.” She adds, “such redundancies should be avoided in learning scenarios.”

“While the students in this study were better able to grasp the big picture when they heard the text, they could better recall small details when they read it.”

Another thing to avoid is playing music during the test. Lehmann initially wondered whether students who had learned with a song might be able to better recall the material if they listened to the melody while they took the test. After all, the guests at the ‘90s party she attended were immediately able to recall the words as soon as they heard the music they hadn’t listened to in many years.

This did not appear to be the case for the students taking a test on Henry VIII. Students who listened to the melody performed worse on the test, even if they had learned the material with the song. Music worked well as a studying tool, but during the test it was a distraction.

Will this study inspire more educators to bring songs into their lessons? “The teachers of the school where the data collection took place found it an interesting idea,” Lehmann said, “as they consider music to have a huge influence on students in this age.” Her paper also offers advice for teachers interested in experimenting with music in the classroom: While there is a benefit to learning through music, the biggest downside is the time it takes to create the songs. Lehmann recommends that teachers work with existing melodies (so they only have to write the words) and share any material they produce with others.

This is exactly what McLellan already does with her statistics songs. She writes short songs to well-known tunes. For example, her song Interpret the Y-intercept uses the melody of the chorus of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball to explain one of the core concepts of the linear model in statistics. The familiar melody helps the students remember the song, but it also saves McLellan time when developing the material.  “I can generally make a song and the music cut of it in about two hours,” she says. It may then take her another hour to upload it to YouTube, but in the span of an afternoon, she can create a song that she uses multiple times in her own classes, and that others can use as well.

With research like Lehmann’s showing the benefits of using songs in the classroom, perhaps more teachers will pick up the baton and make their lessons more musical.

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