The Power of Sound in Education: How Music Can Help Students Learn

Man Made Music has worked on a number projects of late revolving around education, targeting youth ranging in age from early childhood through adolescence. It’s a great challenge: how can we meaningfully enhance systems of learning with sonic?

Then I started to wonder… how is it that I can remember the melody and lyrics to every early-2000s boy band single (which my angsty teen self didn’t even enjoy!) but recalling all American Presidents in chronological order (which I was required to learn several times over in school) leaves me scratching my head? I did some research and found a few interesting answers.

First, patterns: researchers have found that playing unfamiliar music stimulates the superior temporal gyrus, which is the part of the brain responsible for pattern recognition; and the nucleus accumbens, where expectations and prediction-making happen. When a test subject heard a song she liked, these two regions fired up and connected with each other in dramatic fashion.1

Then, consider melodic and rhythmic structures in music and song – all patterns. With melody, we set melodic structure and pitch. With lyrics, we set a temporal structure and often a rhyme scheme as well. If you’re trying to recall the words to a song and the melody and lyric you’re thinking of don’t match the song form in terms of rhythm and rhyme, there’s a good chance you’re wrong. Song form essentially narrows down the problem space and helps you get to a solution more quickly. That’s the beauty of Schoolhouse Rock. Our brains are built to detect patterns and make associations, and sound stimuli strengthen those parts of the brain even more.

Second, proteins: We all joke about becoming forgetful in our old age, but there’s something to it. Another study of brain function focused on two proteins, called NR2A and NR2B, that help create new connections in the brain. Older brains produce increased levels of NR2A, which was shown to help create short-term memories more easily, but also makes it more difficult to weaken the brain’s connection to older, long-term memories. Essentially, “learning becomes more difficult as we age… because we fail to forget the old stuff.” What we learn pre-adolescence sticks with us for a lifetime.2

How does this ladder back to what we do at Man Made Music? Using music and sound strategically in the design of education tools for young people can dramatically impact students’ abilities to remember information and strengthens the parts of the brain that are crucial to our ability to synthesize information, detect patterns, and find solutions. Implementing sonic tools in early childhood education can ensure that what we learn in our youth actually sticks. Hopefully more educators and curriculum designers see the potential here, and with any luck, my children will be able to remember their presidential history with aplomb.

1. Robert Ferris. “Obsessing Over A New Song? Blame Your Superior Temporal Gyrus.Business Insider. 11 April 2013.
2. Douglas Quenqua. “Older Brain Is Willing, but Too Full.The New York Times. 21 January 2013.