Music and Learning
How can music help us in our never-ending research on the brain? Studies show that the art form can help us with memory retention and increase our capabilities for learning.
Who are your favorite musical artists? Do you listen to pop, rap, jazz, blues—or are you more in tune with classical? Everyone has a favorite.
That's because music, with its rhymes and harmonies, appeals to something very ancient within us. The beat of our hearts, the cries of a baby, the pounding of waves are more than just sounds; these are rhymes we relate to intrinsically—the rhythm of life.
The body has a rhythm all its own. It runs on its own natural cycle called a circadian rhythm, which helps determine when your brain should release certain chemicals throughout the day, such as melatonin to help you sleep. Have you ever flown to another country and had trouble adjusting to the new time zone? Your body's "clock" is out of sync with the new time—it takes some time for your body's rhythms to catch up to this new location.
And if you think jet lag is hard, think what time travel could do to your body's circadian rhythms!
Because the human body runs on its own rhythm, the brain responds particularly well to music. Studies show that listening to music while studying can actually help the brain retain more information. A while back, a study found listening to Mozart's music may make people smarter.
So is Mozart the man whose music helps us learn?
Mozart or Nah?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a German composer whose operas and symphonies single-handedly shaped classical music. He is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, and displayed exceptional talent at a very young age. Mozart met an untimely death at the age of 35 due to unknown causes, but his music lives on in history.
An experiment at the University of California at Irvine found evidence that suggests students who listened to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major improved significantly on an IQ test. This effect, however, was only temporary, so the tests had to be taken immediately after listening to the music.
Researchers hypothesize that the nine-point jump in test scores could be due to the complex and frequently changing rhythms in Mozart's music, forcing listeners to pay attention. Mozart's orchestrations seem to activate circuits with the same patterns of neuronal firings that are shown in other learning contexts, so the students were able to both learn and retain more information—and answer more questions correctly on a standard IQ test. Even those students that did not like Mozart earned higher scores after listening to his music!
Studying - Classical Music Style
Researchers also suggest that Mozart's music aids memory retention due to a lack of musical repetition. Artists often repeat lyrics or refrains to emphasize their meaning, but repetitive beats do not help with cognition. Instead, they can sometimes hypnotize us.
The sophisticated, and perhaps mathematically formulated changes in rhythm in Mozart's music may, instead, compel our minds to focus in ways that may be important to learning.
While the study suggests that Mozart's music helps improve learning and memory, one study alone does not prove that Mozart's music is a magic bullet that will turn you into a genius. It does seem to indicate, though, that music has a larger impact on cognition than we realize.
Are there other ways that music might impact learning?
Take the Quiz
Want to Learn More?
- Browne, Malcolm W. "Mozart Makes the Brain Hum, a Study Finds." The New York Times, 14 Oct, 1993. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/14/us/mozart-makes-the-brain-hum-a-study-finds.html. Accessed on 14 Jul, 2016.
- O'Donnell, Laurence "Music and the brain" Music Power, 1 Jan, 1999. http://www.cerebromente.org.br/n15/mente/musica.html. Accessed on 14 Jul, 2016.
- "Wolfgang Mozart Biography" Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/people/wolfgang-mozart-9417115. Accessed on 14 Jul, 2016.
- Walton, Alice G "Your Body's Internal Clock and How It Affects Your Overall Health" The Atlantic, 20 Mar, 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/your-bodys-internal-clock-and-how-it-affects-your-overall-health/254518/. Accessed on 14 Jul, 2016.
- Health, Sound "Dr. Nina Kraus on Why Musical Training Helps Us Process the World around Us." Medium. The Kennedy Center., 8 May, 2017. https://medium.com/the-kennedy-center/dr-nina-kraus-on-why-musical-training-helps-us-process-the-world-around-us-6962b42cdf44. Accessed on 7 Jun, 2017.