For Better Grades, Try Bach in the Background

by Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard Magazine, 1/2/12

 Research: Students learned more when a videotaped lecture was underscored with classical music.

As every teacher knows, it is one thing to impart information; it’s quite another for students to process it. New research suggests educators can help this to occur by turning to some old friends: Beethoven, Bach, and Tchaikovsky.

In the journal Learning and Individual Differences, a research team led by Fabrice Dosseville of the Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie describes an experiment featuring 249 university students in an introductory sports psychology course.

The students were divided into two groups “that were equal on academic performance.” Each group viewed a different version of an hour-long videotaped lecture on “Expertise in Athletics.”

For one group, the lecture was accompanied by a series of familiar classical pieces, including excerpts from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto. The other group heard the lecture with no background music. Within 15 minutes of hearing the lecture, all the students took a multiple-choice quiz featuring questions based on the lecture material.

Results: The students who heard the music-enhanced lecture scored significantly higher on the quiz than those who heard the music-free version.

Why: Recent research suggests emotion plays an important role in learning. Perhaps, like the soundtrack to a movie, the background music put the students in a heightened emotional state, making them more receptive to the information being presented.

Also, “It is possible that music, provoking a change in the learning environment, influenced the students’ motivation to remain focused during the lecture, which led to better performance on the multiple choice quiz,” researchers speculate.

It will be interesting to see whether other instrumental genres of music work as well as the classics. If so, the researchers will be justified in calling background music “a cost-effective way to enhance learning during lectures.”

Pacific Standard explores the science of society, focusing on economics, justice, education, and the environment: “We believe in the power of cutting-edge empirical research to shed new light on human affairs.”

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