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Music and the Mind

For some people, music and learning go together like salt and pepper. For other it's more like salt and slugs. Here, Independent Thinking Associate Nina Jackson shares some of the findings from her groundbreaking research into music, learning and motivation.

Music and the Mind

A powerful tool to support effective learning – the new teaching tool of the 21st Century

Executive Summary of the Research Project at Ogmore School (2001 – 2003) 

***To download the Music Catalogue Nina has produced for her research, detailing what tracks she used and why click here and for an example of the 'Pupil Diary' she developed click here***

Following claims made by researchers, this study investigated the potential of music to raise standards of pupil learning and motivation in the secondary school. 

Data was collected from a range of subject areas using a variety of research methods. A selection of data was analysed, and the findings suggest that we can be cautiously optimistic of the potential music has to motivate pupils, improve concentration and study skills – thus aid learning. 

Teachers who used music were positive about the beneficial affects and wish to continue to use music in their lessons.  This pilot study has produced sufficiently positive results to ensure that the whole school wishes to use music in their lessons. Further research over a longer period is necessary to verify the validity of these findings.

Since the initial research project I have been involved in collecting and analysing data from a wide range of educational institutions who have been prepared to share the developments of ‘Music on the Mind’. The philosophy and application of ‘Music and the Mind’ has embedded itself in the teaching and learning culture of many educational settings and is also being utilised to heal and self-help many individuals.

 Using music effectively in the learning environment

  • Sound Waves make brain waves

Neurological evidence proves that Mozart makes you smarter. But perhaps you didn’t know that Pink Floyd can enhance your memory, or that Bizet can help you learn Hamlet, or even that the Lemonheads can teach you Maths! Music’s power for learning and brainwork goes far beyond Mozart.  It can make you a positive and effective learner. 

Music plays with your state of mind as the electrical energy generated by firing neurons creates brain waves. The music a person chooses to listen to can influence the waves’ frequency, and their state of mind.  It’s not only the mind that is influenced by music, the body also responds. Musical messages travel down the spinal cord, impacting the autonomic nervous system that regulates the heart rate, blood pressure, muscular activity, metabolism, and other vital functions.

Although the general rule is that loud, fast music increases metabolism, and soft, slow music slows us down; a subject’s personal response to music also depends upon autonomic reactivity, determined by things like age, gender, and physical fitness, as well as emotional reactivity and personal attitude towards the music.  In other words, the degree of autonomic response to any given piece of music can vary from one person to another. By using a selection of music based upon the following recommendations you can be sure to create a classroom of positive learning by using methods such as accelerated learning techniques and strategies, empowering pupils to access information and with the aid of music, produce an enhanced working environment.

Music for learning and focus (CD 1 & 2)

‘Focusing’ music can help pupils and yourself with Abstract Reasoning, Learning and Recall, Problem Solving and Brainwork (analytical, creative administrative etc) and some aspects of motivation.

Music can prime your mind for deducing mathematics theorems; drawing conclusions from chemistry experiments, maybe playing chess, or any abstract thinking challenge.  By using the music correctly, you will be able to stimulate aspect of the ‘right brain’ in order to promote logical and analytical thinking. 

Suggested ways of using the ‘learning and focus’ music to promote high – level reasoning

  • Listen to one of the extracts before undertaking a task – the time will vary for you as a teacher – between 2-10 minutes. This will be a time for priming and warm-up. Be careful not to use but the music as a ‘background’ effect, or it might actually create a ‘dual task paradigm’ and distract the worker. This will then become deconstructive.
  • When listening to the extracts, get the pupils to focus on the themes and melodies.  Get them to remember the sounds, hear them change and pass from one instrument to the other so that they can link sequences of events or numbers.
  • If your problem-solving process extends over weeks or longer, you might want to use a broader approach to brain tuning through music. For long-term puzzles or problems, use music as a mood dependent, recall trigger. Pick the extracts that inspired the pupils in previous lessons and listen to it frequently throughout the preparation process.  Then, encourage the development of the problem-solving aspect by listening to the same recording on a regular basis, daily or even weekly – depending on the scope of the project. The music the pupils heard as you gathered information about your problem will recall that knowledge at a subconscious level, rearrange it, and allow it to synthesise in new formulations. Stick with this form of ‘incubation’ listening until eureka strikes!  These extracts must not be played for more than 10 minutes at a time; otherwise they become redundant in their application of developing effective brain tuning.

Suggested ways of using the ‘learning and focus’ music for language and logic

  • Listen for 2-10 minutes or so before you begin the cognitive task, then turn off the music.  As with right-brain priming, you want the pupils to prepare for, not compete with their thinking. Teach the aspect of language, then replay the music after the teaching and get them to link words with sounds, pitches or timbres.
  • With the aid of the music get them to concentrate on the sequential thought.  Listen carefully to the beats and how they are grouped together in time, and how patterns change from one group to the next. This supports the frequency level of words and pitches in our languages and the repetitive aspect of language development.
  • Refresh the analytical mind once again with musical breaks or snacks. This will rejuvenate the thought process and the reflection time or physical break needed to get the brain (and person) ready for the next task.

Music for Relaxation & Calm (CD 3)

We live in an age of high - level anxiety. When stress puts you on edge, music can smooth you out, slow you down, and save you from the ravages of tension.  Music for relaxation and calm can help you and your pupils with stress and anxiety, patience, people, panic, balance, meditation and sleep.

Relaxing music flows through your nervous system to counteract the effects of stress on your body, while in your mind, the right kinds of music can stimulate alpha brain waves for clear thinking and patience, or delta waves that signal sleep. When tension gets the upper hand and panic sets in, music can interrupt the negative biofeedback loop between the mind and body and give some room to breathe.  And, on the interpersonal front, relaxing music has been shown to promote communication among people, easing difficult discussions and averting potential confrontations.

Suggested ways of using music for relaxation and calm

  • Play a suitable extract at the beginning/and or end of the lesson to calm the pupils – this will help their heart rate to slow down as well as lower and hyperactivity.  You may choose to do this at any point during the learning process. Tell them to close their eyes and place their head in their hands or on the table. Play the music for 2-3 minutes. Then, ask them gently (in a whispering tone) to raise their heads and take a deep breathe to relax. This has had fantastic responses from pupils and adults. It sets them up for positive learning. 
  • Use extracts to set the scene – if you’re delivering a particularly poignant task.  Music can affect the emotions and give us a physical response. Choose your pieces carefully here so that you can link the activity with the mood that the music creates.  You can also use excerpts of music other than those on the CD to support your teaching, but make them relevant. e.g. Discovering space….maybe an extract from ‘Apollo 13’ or even ‘ Space 1999’.
  • Give an extract of music to an individual who is displaying unacceptable behaviour in your class. Ask them to wear the headphones and listen to the piece on their own while you continue to teach and this will relieve the pressure from you and the individual – thus supporting better learning and teaching. It should calm the pupil and prepare him/her to continue the lesson.
  • Use the extracts to induce relaxation and calm as a medicine tool – Aristotle called music medicine because it worked as a psychocatharsis.  Turning to music can help vent anger, frustration and grief. Relaxation and calm music will support you and your pupils with aggression, repressed anger, grief, and problem relationships.  With each extract, let the fire burn bright and hot for a moment, consuming the anger until, with the last chord of the piece, it burns itself out.
  • Use music in your classroom at intervals, or long periods of time, to free angry emotions, which are often accompanied by a feeling of being trapped. When your natural reactions are causing claustrophobia, music can provide a quick escape route – remember relief is only a flick switch away. This can be employed with the pupils, or you might choose this route yourself as a teacher after a challenging lesson.

The extracts of music in this CD were chosen for their tempo, timbre and pitch. These were important so that the extracts could be used to slow the heart rate and get pupils to be calmer, or to use the music as an environmental tool whilst they learnt.

Music to motivate, stimulate and energise (CD 4)

Extracts of music were chosen carefully to create the sense of urgency, designed to raise the pulse heart rate necessary to become stimulated.  Consideration was given to the use of voices, lyrics and instrumentation to give force and power behind the music to inspire application of thought when each individual was working. This catalogue is designed to help pupils and staff become energised, motivated and stimulated in their work environment.

Energising music can make your brain exercise longer and harder.  It increases speed and workload capacity for greater conditioning benefits, while it lowers perceived exertion rate. Choosing suitable music was a task, it needed powerful textures and timbres in order to create music that would inspire and energise. The combinations of instruments were very important as well as the structure and length.

Music with a strong steady beat can:

  • Increase endurance
  • Boost effort level
  • Regularise pace, movement and breathing
  • Enhance muscle control
  • Increase motivation
  • Distract from discomfort and agitation.

Suggested ways of using music to motivate, stimulate and energise pupils in your class

  • Use a chosen extracts of music to enthuse the pupils if you feel that they are lethargic or tired. Get then to move their arms and legs or to clap to the beat so that bodily movements become part of the energising and stimulation process.
  • For accelerated learning tasks, choose excerpts that mean ‘victory’ to you or the class – music that has a sense of purpose and pride. Inform the pupils that they have ‘x’ amount of time whilst the music is playing to complete the task. The choice of music will inspire and give them the sense of urgency.  The ‘short & sharp’ tactic to achieving their full potential.
  • Use focused listening before an activity to ‘get them started’ or at the end of a task for ‘thoughtful reflection’ time. This will keep the pupils and yourself fresh and energised.
  • Tune up with team listening. If you choose to do group work, then use as many personal players as you can to create a sense of ‘team’ effort within the group.  Let them choose music that will inspire them, but they must see this as a triumphant tool, not as a tool for ‘passive listening’ whilst they work.
  • Musical Snacks. In order to break up activities or tasks in your lessons, then, give them a musical snack – instead of food for energy; music to develop the brain.  A short excerpt of 1 minute will prepare them for the next task/activity and also give you time to reflect and evaluate your work.

These extracts can be used in any way which you feel will support your pupils become more stimulated, motivated and energised in their application of learning and development of thought processes in your lessons.

Learning to Learn Music (CD 5)

This is a collection of music to be used for specific tasks  which are linked to the four areas discussed previously. The extracts on the CD indicate which tasks they are suitable for. You will be able to use them in conjunction with:

  • Brain Storming Exercises
  • Reflective Music – supporting individual learning
  • Spiritual/Meditation – a time for calm and deep thought
  • Music for a Group Task (10 Minutes)
  • Music for an Individual Task (5 minutes)
  • Music to support/reflect and thought provoking – evaluation of work.

Music for Personal Reflection and Realisation (CD6)

As individuals we continue to live in a world which is ‘fast’, ‘furious’ and often ‘frantic’.  Too many times we forget about ourselves as individuals and spend hours each and every day working to satisfy our employers. The pupils work hard to satisfy teachers and families do not have the time to talk or reflect upon the successes and celebrations of life. 

‘Music for personal reflection and realisation’ was originally prepared for groups of young people who were disaffected with school and life, as well as lacking confidence and inspiration in the skills and individual personalities that they possessed.   We are all ‘special’ in our own way – we have many wonderful qualities as individuals and often we do not celebrate these qualities or give time for us to ‘feel good’ about what we do in life.

‘Music for personal reflection and realisation’ sets out to help all ages to ‘feel good’ about themselves, and for the individual person to ‘take time’ to reflect on the successes, and sometimes difficulties that we encounter whilst living lives that can be turbulent, smooth, disjointed and calm. 

Use each extract  on CD 6 to help you:

Reflect upon the successes of the day in work, relationships or family.

  • To take time to focus upon what ‘has been learnt’ and revise and recall the successful storing of this information
  • To boost morale and motivation and the understanding that anything can be done with a little enthusiasm
  • Use the music to improve your mood, raise your psychological arousal, preparing the way to be positive and proactive in everything you want to do
  • Use the music to erase negative or unwanted thoughts and let the music take you to a place of harmony and inner beauty. Let the music create a positive outlook to clear the negative cognitions from your mind, the music will act as a distraction for you and your pupils
  • Some pupils or individuals will feel anxious about interacting with others – ask them to ‘Jot 3’ positive points about themselves so it prepares them and motivates them for what they might feel is a difficult time ahead
  • Visualisation – the technique to boost music’s mood-lifting power.  Think of it as a ‘golden light’ filling your mind and let each beat that you hear make the light brighter
  • Use ‘Music for personal reflection and realisation’ for any evaluation time.  You may also utilise the tracks along with the same types of techniques as CDs 1-5, if you feel you can use them specifically for ‘measured learning’ and or mood enhancers or environmental changes.

Music will make you and your pupils ‘Compos Mentis’

Beware of the wrong working music! Do not let yourself or the pupils’ fall into the trap of playing and or listening to ‘any’ type of music which, in the long run could have an adverse effect on what you are trying to create in your learning environment.

Instead, follow the suggestions in the parts above for music that stimulates your mind. Feel your neurons fire up as the first sweet strains of electrical energy flow through your cortex.

Remember also to save your Focusing repertoire for mental efforts. Mixing it up with memories of celebrations or wonderful thoughts of fantasy could wreak havoc on your working day. 

Add a soundtrack to your social preparations by blasting uplifting selections while you yourself get dressed for an occasion and so forth. Think of it as dressing up your mind. 
Socialise your ears with speakers, not headphones, to get accustomed to the environment of shared sound waves in the air.
Take your show on the road. Listen to uplifting music in the car on the way to your event so you arrive full of life and confidence.

Associate these sounds with your mind’s finest moments, and all the natural neurological benefits of music will be yours. 

Nina Jackson
Head of Music
Ogmore School, Bridgend, South Wales

Educational Associate - Independent Thinking Ltd

To go to Nina Jackson's profile please click here.