Music Can Improve Learning Engagement, Cognition

Music can be a helpful tool when developing learning materials - that is when it is used correctly. Music can enhance engagement. But it can also overload cognition. Here’s how.

Author of the book Brain Rules and brain scientist, John Medina, writes that emotion can make a memory, well… more memorable. One of the roots of emotion is the amygdala, a mass of gray matter in the brain involved with experiencing emotions. Music is shown to activate the amygdala, in addition to other areas of the brain that release dopamine. Music can make a learning experience more emotional, peaking interest and engagement, and therefore make the learning experience more memorable.

Music can also aid in a multisensory experience for learners. Multisensory environments have been shown to increase information recall up to 75%. Most often utilized are the visual and auditory senses, especially in a learning environment. Using music instead of silence can integrate these senses together, making the information more memorable. 

Of course there are many different genres of music, and not all influence the brain the same way. Each type can compliment an experience in their unique ways. For example, in more active learning experiences, researchers at John Hopkins recommend upbeat music. For focused learning, Baroque music, like Bach, Handel and Telemann, is preferred. Furthermore, Classical music has shown is can improve cognitive functions – theorized as the “Mozart effect” - whereas rock music elicited worse cognition than mere silence. 

Here is an example of a education "movie trailer" I made previewing GHX's education resources for its product, My Exchange. I included upbeat instrumental rock music to inspire action.

Singing and other vocalization in music has also shown to have negative effects on concentration. In a study that compared pop music to classical, pop music seemed to distract students because of its lyrics. Classical music, being instrumental, did not have verses or catchy choruses to distract the students' focus.

When selecting music for your learning experience, choose carefully. Always keep in mind whether the music overloads the learners' cognition. Can it be distracting? Also, choose what's appropriate. What emotion are you attempting to provoke? And, something I’ve personally dealt with: Even if you picked the right genre of music, make sure it isn’t too loud! Remember that your audience may be using earphones and would appreciate you not blowing up their eardrums.

If you have any questions or comments about adding music to learning experiences, tweet me @mitchellwoll.