- Willy Shakespeare
A lot of ink has been spilled over the question of what effect music has on the brain. Oliver Sacks' book Musicophilia ("Music, Ophelia?") tackles the topic in great detail.
But three recent studies on the effects of music on learning should also have us tapping our collective toes.
First up: a paper in the Journal of Music Therapy that looks at the effects of music therapy on social and participatory behaviors within various learning disabled populations (ASD, developmental disabilities such as Downs and communication disorders such as stuttering). Music therapy was found in over 70 studies to promote a variety of "social and participation outcomes, such as frequency of responses, initiation of communication, turn-taking, joint attention, and group participation." The evidence was not overwhelming, however, and the outcomes varied with the known deficits of each population's condition.
Still, music therapy was the key factor in improving behaviors characterized by increased focus and active participation.
And what learner behaviors are associated with poor training outcomes? How about: lack of focus and non-participation?
Hold that thought, and let's move on to study #2, this one from the journal, Educational Technology Research and Development. The authors put together the results of 30 studies over a 10 year period, ending in 2018, examining the role of background music (BM) on learning outcomes. And they started out hopeful, noting that "instrumental BM may positively affect attention in the workplace. Similarly, college students use music while studying to increase concentration on academic tasks. Individuals use self-selected BM to regulate their mood, to be calmer and more relaxed while driving, and to enhance their emotional state while traveling."
However, after a rigorous study selection process, the results were disappointing. Inconsistencies between the studies made conclusions difficult. The impact of BM on things like memory, recall, reading comprehension and writing skills were contradictory. Moreover, all of the qualifying studies focused only on narrow, simple tasks; none addressed the top Bloom levels of applying, analyzing, synthesizing or evaluating knowledge.
They did, however, find uniformly positive effects on student motivation, enhanced recall of facts and improved foreign language learning when it came to the three studies that looked at multimedia modalities such as video games, VR and interactive lessons--the sorts of things we do in eLearning. This, despite some researchers' concerns about distraction and cognitive overload.
The authors end with an exhortation to their peers to smarten up and use more rigor in future studies.
Enter study #3, not from a music or training journal but from the European Journal of Pediatric Surgery, which answers the concerns of study #2 by using a more rigorous methodology including TWO distinct genres of music AND a control group AND a six month follow-up.
The result? The medical students listening to Bach (classical) while they learned a complex fine motor skill (tying a surgical knot) showed significantly better speed and quality than those who studied without any music at all or who listened to Bushido (a German rapper). However, scores on knot-tying performance, accuracy and knot strength were no better than in the other groups.
The authors' conclusion? 2 out of 5 ain't bad. They confidently claim that given a fine motor skill task, Med students exposed to classical music during their training improved in speed and quality more so than those who were not. It is not surprising that performance, accuracy and strength were the same for everyone, really, so this is a significant finding.
But another question the authors don't ask is, what is it about the classical music that is having this effect? They posit that it is the "non-disturbing" nature of the genre as opposed to rap music, which is less melodic, that was the main factor. However, they are clearly unaware of the great work that has been done in the field of neurotherapy regarding how different sound frequencies affect brain function, based on the fact that different groups of neurons vibrate at different frequencies and that can be targeted to produce predictable results. So it may be that classical has a greater range of frequencies than rap, rather than it's easy-listening qualities. There is also a lot of research supporting the idea that the complexification of our neural systems are what puts the oil in our mental chassey, so perhaps the complex harmonics have something to do with it.
So what are the implications for instructional design, you ask?
Well, we can say that if you are designing training for a fine motor skill, adding classical music to the experience will likely improve performance, and not much else. Not everyone likes classical music, so it may not be that useful even there. Also, exposure to music that is interactive, as in music therapy, can promote prosocial behavior, which is good for encouraging attentiveness and participation. That's something.
HOWEVER, THESE AREN'T THE ONLY 3 STUDIES OUT THERE. My point is, we should be discussing these things. As learning professionals I find we often get stuck in a rut, discussing the same strategies over and over without looking at new research and its implications.
Maybe we should consider the soundscape of a course to be as important as its visual design, rather than seeing music as just a frill. If background music benefits speed and accuracy in one domain, maybe that extends to others. And if music encourages focus and active participation in general, I'm down with that, too.
Of course, this is extrapolating, more research needs to be done. But I think it's high time we paid attention to such research if we really want to call ourselves scientific in our efforts to improve our clients' learning--and business--outcomes.
Mitch (whose son is a beatmaker--check him out here)
P.S. If you like this blog, do me a favor and retweet or share it so more people can read it. Thanks muchly!
P.P.S. And now, for your listening pleasure: Bushido!