This article was first published in the Slovenian paper magazine, IN (winter issue 2016).
The Power of Music in Learning
Danny Singh, UK and Italy
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He is author of two books, “I was a happy man then one day I came across Laughter Yoga” and “Learning English through the mind and the body”. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
Music is one of the most popular forms of communication. It is intrinsic to all cultures and transcends barriers of religion, race, nationality and even language. In addition, music is one of the few activities that involves using the whole brain. Reading music and playing an instrument focuses more on the left-side of the brain, while composing or interpreting a piece of music concentrates more on the right-side. It is not coincidental that musicians are usually good at mathematics.
Music is an excellent form of therapy and helps to reduce stress and tension. During a typical summer school language course in the UK, students start by doing an entry test to identify their level, before being put into a group. This test is quite short, but extremely stressful for the students, as a bad test result could mean spending the whole course in a group with a lower-level, than the one to which they feel they are entitled to be in. To help the students understand how much time remains during this test, we teachers might write 2 minutes or 30 seconds on the board at various intervals. However, during the summer of 2014, I tried a new system, very simple, but with pleasing results. When there was less a minute left, I began playing the song, The final countdown by Europe. The musical introduction is enough to help them understand and most of them smile, start giggling or burst into short fits of laughter, which helps to break the tension.
The most important reason for using music in learning is that it facilitates memory, unlike almost no other activity. Even when we dislike a song or piece of music, if we hear it enough times, we can’t get it out of our mind, just because it stimulates memory. A university lecturer who simply talks for an hour or so, with little interaction or feedback expected from the students, may well ask why music could be beneficial in this case. Concentrating on a speaker, however interesting, humorous and stimulating he/she might be, is quite difficult to maintain for anything more than 15 minutes. However, let’s say our lecturer switches on the first 45 seconds of Smoke in the water by Deep Purple, with those famous guitar chords, after about 15 minutes of his lecture. I am pretty certain that it would help break the tension, the boredom and keep students awake. Our lecturer then continues for another 15 minutes or so, then does it again. If the lecture lasts for an hour, the musical introduction to the song will have been played three times and possibly four, if the lecturer plays it at the end. Aside from acting as a clock, this piece of music has far more beneficial results for our students. Just trying to recall the song will help the students to remember parts of the demanding lecture that they have been through. Ideally, the lecturer should play a short piece of music to indicate a change of subject. If a different piece of piece of music is played each time, the student will link each piece of music to certain information given at the lecture. I would invite all university lecturers who have never used music before in their lessons, even if perhaps sceptical, to try this technique, then send me your results and feedback.
When we learned as kids, we used an array of music and songs to help us learn the alphabet, the times table, numbers, the days of the week, as well as short stories. I’m sure readers can think of their own additional examples. The kids of today have even more access to music as a learning aid, thanks to the internet and various other tools which can create or download music in an instant.
There is of course a procedure to go through. A five year old child does not simply begin singing a song in perfect English, just because it’s being played on the teacher’s CD player. At first, the child will begin moving and feeling the music rhythmically, then start humming the sound. The child will pick up on a few key words that he/she has managed to understand so far. Then, as he/she really gets into it, the child may well start singing the whole song, not with the correct words necessarily, but more likely with some similar sounds. That’s all part of the fun.
Music works on our emotions. When we hear a song or piece of music, our body temperature changes, goose pimples appear on our arms, we can feel a tingle moving up our spine. Like our best and worst emotional experiences, we remember all the finite details. We all remember where we were on our best birthday celebration, not just the exciting bits, but even information which is normally discarded; what we were wearing, who was present, what we ate and drank, the temperature of the location, a phone call which took place during the evening, a humorous and maybe unexpected event. Similarly, we all remember where we were when the Twin Towers collapsed, or when a famous statesman was either assassinated or died in strange circumstances.
If you find a song emotionally uplifting, each time you hear it, you will remember information linked to when you heard it. The same is true even if it makes you cry. I remember Nessun dorma by Pavarotti being played by the BBC as Donadoni struck his penalty over the bar in the 1990 World Cup, meaning that Italy were eliminated on penalties and Argentina went through in their place. That image haunted me every time I heard the piece of music, until almost twenty years later, when it was played in another deeply emotional situation, during a Spanish film, in which a paraplegic man was flying in his bed.
Music can affect our mood and emotions as mentioned previously. It is not by chance that each store or shopping centre you enter has a particular song or piece of music being played at that moment. It is usually studied beforehand in detail. Shops want you to spend money and to feel happy while you’re doing it, so the music is carefully selected to help obtain those results. At train stations meanwhile, the objective is to ensure the passenger feels as relaxed as possible and doesn’t notice that he/she may be waiting 20 minutes for a train which normally passes every five.
When you phone a company to complain about something, what happens? They often put you on hold and you are forced to listen to a piece of music, usually relaxing, which you hear so many times, that when you do eventually get through to someone, you are no longer angry and you may even be humming the very music that’s been playing. In the Harrow town bus station (a London suburb), a location notorious for crime, an experiment was tried, where classical music was played day and night over a period of time. The result was that the crime rate dropped dramatically.
In learning situations, mood is often underestimated. If students are feeling too excited, hyperactive, sleepy, or bored, they will not be at their best for learning. A good teacher can anticipate the mood of the students, especially if he/she knows them. But music should be used to set the tone. If you want your students to jump up and move around, play some good rock. I often have to use this with adults, who expect to sit down and relax for the best part of a lesson. If you want your students to relax, meditate and concentrate, try playing something which reflects this. Any Mozart or relaxing classical music will do. When I want my students to think creatively, I might play some jazz or a mix of classical and jazz. Ensuring your students are in their best learning mode by applying the appropriate music is fundamental.
It is well known that the image is far more powerful than the word. Our mind remembers the image and consequently the words related to it far more than a group of sentences making up a paragraph. However, if music is then added to the image, this stimulates the memory even more. I’m sure you can all think of some examples of short videos, where the music is more than just a useful tool to help you memorise the information contained in the video. Classical and rock are the best forms of music for aiding memory in this context.
With the diffusion of facebook and other forms of social network, images are now freely available. It is quite easy to obtain images demonstrating more or less anything you want. Try creating a PowerPoint presentation with some of them and adding music. That will make the information stick even more. Nowhere is the link between music and images greater than in the world of cinema. When we think of the Hitchcock classic, Psycho, we don’t actually see a woman being stabbed in the shower. We see a knife approaching a shower curtain, but what hits us is that sharp music. That music is what makes the image more powerful. How many films can you think of where the music plays a fundamental role in making the images memorable?
As we have already seen, music has tremendous benefits for language learning, improving memory and focusing attention, but also for physical coordination and development. Learning through physical movement has been an important part of my methodology for many years, however, it was only in May 2014, that I discovered some conclusive results. I was invited to a seminar in Catania (Sicily) on the subject of students with the problem of dyslexia and short attention span in learning. I believed that I had little experience in this subject and indeed wondered why the organiser had insisted on my presence.
In the morning, I was sent to a high school, where I was given two classes and asked to demonstrate some of my activities that I normally use with my students. We did some breathing exercises, laughter yoga exercises, making words with the body, verbs through the body and combined with gentle back massage, yoga combined with total physical response and some other activities. I was shocked to discover that several students in the two groups had either dyslexia or other learning deficiencies. I hadn’t the slightest inkling of this during the lesson. Each student had participated in a more or less confident manner.
After a solid Sicilian lunch, I was taken to the seminar and asked to speak about my methodology. While talking, one of the Professors who had been present during my morning lessons operated a video showing some clips from the lessons. The amazing thing was that everything I said was demonstrated by a video clip! The point is that students with learning difficulties benefit enormously from activities with movement, rather than being told to sit still, which is totally unnatural, group activities where they can collaborate, rather than be singled out and stared at!
Of all the activities I did, probably the most interesting in this debate was making words with the body. There are essentially two ways that students can do this exercise. One is by using the body to form the shapes of the letters. The other is by creating an image which represents the word. For a dyslexic student, this one is interesting. Which technique would they choose? Probably the image of course. However, considering that the shape of the words is created with the body and not with pen and paper, there is no reason why many dyslexics couldn’t choose this form.
The physical coordination and movement can be seen even more when we move on to music combined with dancing. Dancing which ironically is the same as the shortened version of my name DanSingh, used to be my greatest fear. As all readers should know, the best way to overcome your fear is to face it. I was forced to face mine, when through no fault of my own, I was selected to participate in a Bernardo Bertolucci short film at a wedding scene. I was quite happy to play the role of a guest who was slumped in a chair, having overeaten, however, despite my protestations, I was forced to dance with a tall elegant lady. When the day finished and a large banknote was placed into my hand, I realised that I had been paid to dance, therefore, my conclusion was that however ridiculous I might seem, I had nothing more to be ashamed of. This led to me trying different kinds of dance and eventually finding dances that I actually enjoyed; circle dancing, folk dancing, Scottish dancing. I inserted some of these into my lessons. What often makes these dances easy is not just that the movements are fairly simple, but that the music is highly amusing! Music reduces muscle tension and improves body movement and coordination.
I have applied dance into my lessons in other ways. Humour and laughter is an essential part of my approach to teaching, so I look for song videos which have funny dance routines, get my students to watch them and then together we imitate the dance routine. Doing this all together as a group means that no one student feels vulnerable about his/her lack of coordination, or what his/her peers might say, but most of all it is fun and increases self-confidence. Critics might ask what language learning is actually taking place. Well, as we are dancing to songs which contain words, these lyrics are absorbed far more easily than simply sitting down and listening to them. Students link the words with the images of the video and can reproduce them quite easily. Some of the songs with these hilarious dance routines are Lonely boy by Black Keys, The Locomotion by Little Eva, Where the hell is Matt (any version), although my favourite is the 2008 version, as I love the music. Another song that I often use is These boots are made for walking. There are two versions, the modern one by Planet Funk, which is deliberately humorous and the original version by Nancy Sinatra, which is funny because of the dances used in that period.
Using different versions of the same song is another technique that I enjoy, especially if the versions are significantly different. The two versions of These boots are made for walking mentioned above differ enormously, as do the two versions of Losing my Religion by REM and Lacuna Coil, Save a Prayer by Duran Duran and Super Angels and Dancing in the street by Martha and the Vandellas and Jagger and Bowie. It’s amazing how many students initially claim they can’t dance, but then turn out to be ballerinas of the highest level after a few lessons dancing to these songs. Teachers can obviously choose their own favourite songs to use with their groups.
Music is a form of art, but can be linked with other forms such as paintings. The obvious example is Starry starry night by Don McLean which was influenced by the famous Van Gogh painting. We can discuss the links between the two, the preferences of the students for the song or the painting and analyse the plethora of vocabulary that comes out of it. An example of a song that is influenced by a book is Resistance by Muse. In reality, a whole album was influenced by the book 1984 by George Orwell, however, that is perhaps the most well-known song from the album. Students who may find the idea of reading the book or indeed any book a tedious chore, could be encouraged to listen to the whole Muse album before proceeding with the book.
Music and songs are not only beneficial for language learning, but can be used as an aid to teach almost any subject. There is a site, where “bored history teachers” have created parodies of a huge number of hit songs, changing the lyrics and making reference to important historical events. I doubt many students would say that history was a trivial and meaningless subject after listening to these songs!
Songs and music can also be used to teach social and political issues. One song that is very powerful is the Gandhi rap. A student may wonder why they should bother reading about a famous, yet defunct character, however, after listening to the Ghandi rap, it is quite likely that they will want to find out the information themselves, starting with the lyrics, then deepening their knowledge of the subject.
Many people assume that a subject such as Business English should be taught in an extremely serious way, with little time for fun and entertainment. However, one great business teacher that I had the good fortune to meet, told me that she used to teach primary school kids before she became a business teacher, after which, she continued to use the same methods, while adapting the language. There is a wide range of songs that can be used in Business English, touching all kinds of subjects related to money, accounts, interest, deposits and debt.
When using music and songs in the classroom, never overestimate the quality of technology. The internet has crashed, the computer expert has a virus and is absent today, the CD player has gone missing, are all factors which can make the life of a teacher more difficult. In numerous situations, I’ve had to abandon my idea of using music in the classroom, or use a different song to the one which would have been more appropriate.
In the summer of 2014 however, I had an excellent internet system, while I was teaching high school kids at a summer school, based at Reading University in the UK. This allowed me to use streaming and show some ready-made interactive video lessons that are visible on a WebTV channel. I was given a free reign by the school to literally do whatever I wanted and I did!
I started breathing and laughter exercises at the beginning of the lesson, followed by a series of creative team building exercises, then some verb exercises, done by a mix of stretching movements and gentle massage. After the first break, we continued with some neuro-linguistic programming techniques, exploiting the use of the senses, before some work on physical pronunciation and yoga combined with total physical response.
However, the real revolution was the use of music in the lessons. As the students walked into the room, I would have a lively song playing to wake them up. Between each activity, just as I suggested earlier for the University lecturers, I would play a song to separate one activity from another. The songs were carefully selected according to the group and modified if necessary, according to the group reaction or mood. In a four hour lesson, at least ten different songs were played. Most of the students appreciated the music, a few wondered and indeed, asked me why we had so many different songs playing, as they were obviously not used to hearing so many songs in the classroom, while those that would complain about anything and everything, did precisely that! I allowed each group to choose one song themselves. This ensured that the group had to work together, as they were only permitted one song, so that they made a serious and well thought out choice. In addition, it enabled me to discover some new artists (for better or for worse) that I had no previous knowledge of, but most importantly, I could observe them as they sang their favourite songs, with a high quality pronunciation, yes, even the lower-level ones who had difficulty uttering a simple sentence using the present simple, would produce a decent sound. That’s the power of music in learning.
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