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GCSEs: can classical music really boost revision?

Elgar for English, Mozart for maths, Schubert for science? As exam time approaches, Liz Hawker explores how a rousing requiem could help with recall

music revision

Classic FM has struck a chord with students, it seems.

According to figures out this week, there has been a 50 per cent increase in 16- to 25-year-old students tuning in over the past three years between April and June, in the heat of exam season.

Now the station is offering symphonies to swotters. From the end of April, Revision Hour will calm students with classics, offering what is being touted as “the perfect music for concentration...in one continuous stream”.


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So are they on to something? Can music boost cognition and concentration? Or is this just another version of the Mozart Effect?

That 1990s craze is almost certainly responsible for the hype linking classical music to better academic performance, after a US study by found that spatial tasks were performed better after listening to classical music than after silence.

A popularised version of the original hypothesis took this to suggest that Mozart made you smarter, with later papers exploring links to improved IQ scores (now discredited).

I’ll admit that Revision Hour would have been music to the ears of my 16-year-old self. There is no doubt that a fine piece of instrumental music can lift the mood, calm the nerves and focus the attention. But is music the answer for everyone?

The brain is a complex organ. It is constantly processing auditory, visual and other forms of sensory input, endlessly filtering, storing and bringing back information, sometimes on request, sometimes not.

Neuroscientists have established that music can bring benefits to cognitive tasks, but that it depends on the nature of the task, the student's boredom threshold and, crucially, on the music itself.

headphones

A recent study found that listening to music can actually put an additional strain on cognitive processes that rely on working memory. If the task is simple and boring, listening to complex music while doing it is a good thing (for someone who does not need external stimuli); on the other hand, if you have a low boredom threshold (or if the task is complex) music will be distracting and actually impair performance.

Of course, this debate is not limited to smooth classics. In her brilliant TED Talk, Jessica Grahn argues that any genre of music can establish a positive mindset before starting a task (as long as you like the music), but that many other things achieve the same aim – listening to an engaging story, for instance.

As with all things educational, one size does not fit all. Techniques for teaching neurodiverse learners can help with memory and cognition for all learners.

So, here's my recommended musical revision repertoire:

Use all your senses, not just music, to make your brain alert and receptive before you get stuck in: do some exercise, smell something wonderful, look at a picture you love, listen to a song that makes you feel positive (just avoid lyrics to bypass any earworms). Do this each time you revise a specific area and it can become a memory trigger to stimulate recall.

Get physical and rehearse the information as many times as you can: say back to yourself a fact, figure or piece of vocabulary each step you take of the stairs, each tile of the floor or each hit of a tennis ball.

Be selective then be active: condense key information into a five-point summary, then tap each of your fingers to say each fact out loud.

Set a timer for a minute or two and record yourself summarising the key facts about a topic; listen back to it several times more, before sleeping and on other days, to help it 'stick' in your longer-term memory.

Sing or rap about your topic or say key facts out loud while playing notes of a scale or chords; play just the notes or rhythm again and recall them.

Act out a live TV appearance or radio interview with a friend, responding to questions and arguing your case passionately.

Get into the rhythm. Break down key terms into syllables, say them out loud and clap them, putting emphasis on the stressed syllable; get a friend or family member to give you the definition and clap back the number of syllables and tell them the term (or vice versa). If you struggle with the spelling, 'write' it in the air to boost your memory of the word shape and the letter joins.

So back to Mozart. Or any other form of music, on or off Classic FM's recommended track list, for that matter. Perhaps we can agree that the right choice of music, at the right moment, is better than the sound of silence.

But it's one small piece of a much bigger puzzle: just one of many multi-sensory tools to boost our recall.

Liz Hawker is a parent, teacher, specialist assessor and linguist

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