Could classical music boost learning and memory?

While research suggests that music may increase students’ enjoyment and make them more relaxed, these aren’t necessarily beneficial things in the classroom, writes Jared Cooney Horvath
15th November 2019, 12:05am
Could Classical Music Boost Learning?

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Could classical music boost learning and memory?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/could-classical-music-boost-learning-and-memory

A common argument for classical music being a special learning enhancer concerns relaxation. It has been demonstrated that classical music can trigger the brain’s release of dopamine - a chemical that contributes to joy and can reduce stress. Presumably, this dopamine release will make learners feel relaxed, which, by extension, will assist with learning.

Unfortunately, relaxation may not always be optimal for learning. In fact, a wealth of evidence suggests that low to moderate stress can significantly boost learning and memory. (For more on whether music during study can help or hinder learning, you can read my 1 November column.)

It has also been demonstrated that any form of music (be it pop, rock or rap) can trigger a similar release of dopamine within the brain. This suggests that any benefit dopamine may (or may not) confer on learning is not exclusive to classical music.

Another argument concerns enjoyment. In a small yet highly cited set of studies, a pair of maths teachers demonstrated that student enjoyment levels increased by nearly 10 per cent when classical music was played during class. Unfortunately, enjoyment and learning are not synonymous. In fact, the two may not even be causally related.

To clarify, compare the experience of watching an exciting film with the experience of writing an 80,000-word dissertation: I’m sure you would enjoy the former much more. Now, imagine comparing your memories of the film and the dissertation: I’m sure you would remember much more from the latter. The fact that classical music may enhance enjoyment is interesting in its own right, but it’s important not to conflate this with an argument for enhanced learning.

A final argument concerns entrainment: a process whereby brain patterns begin to mimic the rhythm or pattern of external stimuli. This is the basis for photosensitive epilepsy: when some individuals look at a strobe light, their brain will mirror this flashing pattern, triggering a seizure.

Memory formation within the brain is typically reflected by the coupling of theta (5Hz) and high-gamma (about 80Hz) frequencies, which are often found in Baroque music (50-80Hz). This suggests that listening to Baroque music may entrain memory formation rhythms in the brain, thereby boosting learning - a theory supported by several early studies. Unfortunately, the past 25 years of research (largely conducted using electromagnetic brain stimulation) have not been kind to entrainment. By and large, it does not appear to reliably or predictably impact on learning or memory.

Furthermore, sustained entrainment appears to rely on intention. This means Baroque music will entrain theta/gamma rhythms only among individuals who are already deeply engaged with learning. And engagement with learning naturally generates theta/gamma rhythms (no music required).

As it stands, classical music does not appear to be special - at least with regards to impact on learning and memory. With that said, I remain optimistically open and welcome anecdotes or thoughts from readers on this topic.

Jared Cooney Horvath is a neuroscientist, educator and author, and is director of the Science of Learning Group. He is an honorary research fellow at St Vincent’s Hospital and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Full references can be found at tes.com, and if you’d like to ask our resident learning scientist a question, email AskALearningScientist@gmail.com

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline “Could classical music boost learning? There are a few strings attached”

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