Music's Magic Learning Properties

January 9, 2019

People have known since just about the beginning of human social organization that if you want people to remember something you put it to music and sing it over and over. If you add movement (hint: dance), the effect is even stronger. Way before writing systems, ancient cultures started passing down their culture's entire history over generations using song and dance. That's why we have passed down the "ABC" song through many generations and it's why we have so many other folks songs and rhymes that we sing to little kids to teach them vocabulary and social concepts. Of course, many modern parents have recognized that the social lessons passed down through some of these songs are not lessons we want to teach our kids today and so we have chosen specifically not to sing them. Our ancestors did not understand why it worked, they just knew that it did. In fact, we didn't really start to understand why it works until relatively recently as brain scientists were given new tools for observing our brains in action.


Brain scientists, mostly neurologists and cognitive psychologists, have discovered that music processing uses just about every part of our brain. From the time the sound waves enter our ear canals to the point when we understand "what a song is really about", different parts of our brain get involved. We know that in order for information to get stored in our long-term storage it has to survive the filtering process in the hippocampus. We also know that one of the criteria that the hippocampus uses to decide what to throw away and what to pass on is how many brain connections a piece of information has with it. The more connections the more likely it will be kept. That's why if you just look at a word, the great majority of people will not remember it long term. If you look at a word, and say it, you have a better chance of remembering it. If you look at it, say it and do a movement related to it, you have an even better chance of remembering it. And if you look at it, say it, do a movement related to it and do all of this in the context of a social experience, you are most likely to remember it. Why? Because each time you add a new experience, you add brain connections to that information. Having a social experience attached to a memory is the strongest kind of brain connection you can have because that social experience is tied to emotion. And that is why music has magical learning properties- because we know that experiencing music is inherently emotional.


That is why when I set out to create my Spanish class for babies I knew I would need music. We intuitively know that babies learn through music. That's why every culture has baby songs. Babies learn entirely through immersion whereas when we get older and we become more consciously aware of the learning process, we seek to "understand" what we are trying to acquire. Babies just suck it all in and wait until it's time to try to use it. That doesn't mean that music isn't still wildly useful for students of all ages.


As I was creating my curriculum I looked for music that had the specific qualities of very effective baby songs: simplicity, repetition of target words, and upbeat tempos without running the word sounds together. I just couldn't find any. There are many beautiful songs that are upbeat but you can't understand a word the singer is saying even if you speak the language already. Likewise, there are lots of songs that tell beautiful stories but only ever repeat one or two words in the hook. I needed songs that did all of these things at the same time. So I wrote them.


I wrote the lyrics and melodies and recorded them and I started using them in my classes a cappella. They worked! So then I thought, well how much better would they work if I had some really good instrumentals behind the lyrics to enhance the emotional experience of the song. I found my writing partner, composer Jonathon Lynch. He come up with these amazing instrumental compositions. We recorded them and I got them professionally produced and the next thing you know we had ¡Canta! Songs to Learn Spanish.


Then, I began realizing how I could use these same songs with other age groups. I wrote 5 different curricula based on these songs to help people of all ages acquire Spanish skills more effectively and efficiently. As I put them into use, I was amazed at the results. All of my students (even the self-conscious teenagers) enjoy them and realize quickly that they reduce their study time substantially.


Including music in your day-to-day life is an easy way to maximize your recall of what you want to learn. Play the songs on in the car to multi-task and keep you children engaged during travel. Putting on a song and enjoying it with someone else enhances that effect. So grab a song. Hang out with your child, your spouse, your friend or a even stranger and sing it and groove to it together. Having fun will teach you that much more!


If you're interested in checking out the songs, you can find them here: songs.

If you're a teacher and want to check out the curricula, you can find them here: curricula.

If you homeschool or are a parent of a not-yet-school-age child and want to check out the version of the curriculum for home use, you can find that here: Home Use



Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music, Dutton, New York 2016 (Want to read it? click here)


Andreatta, Britt, PhD Neuroscience of Learning, LinkedIn Learning (Want to watch it? click here)



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