A Guide to Music in Learning

Learning Design

A Guide to Music in Learning

As participants walk back to the training room, chatting among themselves and talking on their mobile phones after a break, they are greeted by an exciting music track playing in the background (listen below). The music sets the mood for mystery and adventure. The facilitator allows the music to play till participants have settled down and then fades the music out slowly to announce the next learning activity, “It’s a treasure hunt!”

Result – instant re-connection and heightened learner attention. Music has successfully brought a distracted group of participants back to the present moment.

In another situation, as participants click the link to launch a virtual learning program on Creativity and Innovation, they are greeted by Nina Simone singing Feeling Good. The audio track instantly sets the mood for something new, fresh and exciting. It also sets the pace and the tone for the virtual learning program that follows.

Result – heightened attention, enthusiasm and focus.

The Power of Music and Sounds

Music moves us in ways few other things can. It helps us to tune out the constant chatter of thoughts, emotions and feelings and it helps us to tune into the present moment. This is why music can be a very powerful instructional tool.

“Music, which is organized auditory information, helps organize the mind that attends to it, and therefore reduces psychic entropy, or the disorder we experience when random information interferes with goals. Listening to music wards of boredom and anxiety, and when seriously attended to, it can induce flow experiences.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

How Music and Sounds Affect Us

The modern workplace is complex, high-stress, fragmented and full of distractions. Our responsibility as Instructional Designers and L&D practitioners is to ensure that learning can happen in-spite of these distractions. While we go to great lengths to write the perfect case study and frame the most appropriate quiz question, we often forget to ensure whether learners are constantly attending to learning events and activities. Creative and skillful use of music ensures that learners stay focused and their attention is sustained.

Here is an interesting talk about how sound affects us. As you listen to this talk, reflect on the environment that your learners are likely to have when they undertake the learning journey.

Interesting Talk – Julian Treasure: The 4 ways sound affects us

Here are the four ways in which sound affects us:

  1. Physiological – Heart rate, breathing, and brainwaves.
  2. Psychological – Mood and emotional state
  3. Cognitive – Mental capacity, productivity, and performance
  4. Behavioural – Verbal and non-verbal responses
The Instructional Purpose of Music in Learning

Now that we understand the power of music, let’s look at the ways we can use music in a learning program. Here are some broad strategies to use music to aid or assist learning.

  1. Gaining Attention: This is usually right at the beginning of a program or after every break. Music can be used to gain and focus attention of the learner and bring them to the ‘here and now.’
  2. Setting the Mood and Tone: This is when you use music to set the mood and the context for learning. This can be done before you begin a new section or can be music played in the background of a learning event like a game or an activity.
  3. Setting Pace and Rhythm: Music can be used to increase or decrease the pace of the program. For example, if you want your learners to slow down and think deep, you can choose music that is soft yet intense.
  4. Holding Attention: Music can also be used to hold the attention of the learner particularly if the task to be done is long and requires many steps.
  5. Building Recognition, Associations and Reconnecting: Music can also be used to reconnect with past knowledge, events or memories. A short musical note that follows a fact or a concept can be used repetitively to reconnect with it throughout the learning program.
  6. Highlighting and Directing Attention: Music and sounds can be used to highlight areas of the screen, provide feedback and generally to directing attention. For example, while playing an online business simulation game a loud beep can bring attention of players that their resources are running low.
  7. Adding Dramatic Effects and Making it Fun: Finally, music can be one of the best methods of decreasing boredom and increasing learner motivation. It can make complex subjects light and easy to assimilate. It can also be used to add a little bit of drama and highlights to your learning program.

These are only a few instructional strategies. Ronald A. Berk in his paper – Use of Technology and Music to Improve Learning lists 20 different potential instructional outcomes of using music for learning.

  1. Grab students’ attention
  2. Focus students’ concentration
  3. Generate interest in class
  4. Create a sense of anticipation
  5. Establish a positive atmosphere/environment
  6. Energize or relax students for learning exercise
  7. Draw on students’ imagination
  8. Build rapport among students
  9. Improve attitudes toward content and learning
  10. Build a connection with other students and teacher
  11. Increase memory of content/concepts
  12. Facilitate the completion of monotonous, repetitive tasks
  13. Increase understanding
  14. Foster creativity
  15. Improve performance on tests and other measures
  16. Inspire and motivate students
  17. Make learning fun
  18. Augment celebration of successes
  19. Set an appropriate mood or tone
  20. Decrease anxiety and tension on scary topics
When to Use Music and Sound Effects and How

Julian Treasure in his TED talk (see above) also leaves us with four golden rules for using sound and music. It’s interesting how these golden rules are also related to the use of music for learning:

  1. Make it congruent: Choose music that is congruent (in agreement or harmony) with the objectives of your learning program. If you are running a fast paced program on Change Management do not play relaxing or soft music while opening the session. Instead, use music that is fast-paced and energetic.
  2. Make it appropriate to the situation: The music that use you use must take into account the cultural diversity of your participants.
  3. Make it valuable: Music should add value to the overall experience of the learning event.
  4. Test and test again: As you begin using music in your learning events you will develop an understanding of what music works best in which situations. It’s important to receive learner feedback on the music you play and check if your selection was the most appropriate for the learning event.
Tips and Tricks for Using Music in Learning

Here are a few tips and tricks based on my own experience of using music in eLearning and in the classroom.

  1. Make it a part of your program design: Every workshop usually has a Session Plan. Make sure that you add a column for the suggested music in your Session Plan or add it as a Note in the Comments/Resources section. This will help the program facilitator to remember what music needs to be played during each session.
  2. Do not overdo it: Every learner is different. While some may like music in the background, others may find it distracting. Use music judiciously and only when necessary.
  3. Build your own music library: As you research more on the topic of Music and Learning and listen to different musical compositions and pieces make sure you create your own curated list. You can create a folder with various sub-folders named according to the instructional stages identified above and store the music files in these sub-folders for easy access. Don’t forget to share your list with co-facilitators and other practitioners.
Another Interesting video – Effects of Music on the Brain: Jessica Grahn at TEDxWaterloo 2013


Top Music Resources by Instructional Objective

Based on the strategies discussed above, here is a compilation of music resources that you can use.

Gaining Attention, Setting the Mood and Tone,

  1. Four Seasons by Vivaldi – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRxofEmo3HA
  2. Chariots of Fire (Soundtrack) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSav51fVlKU
  3. Mission Impossible (Soundtrack) – We find this particularly useful to gain attention of participants as they walk back after breaks and post lunch sessions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAYhNHhxN0A

Setting Pace and Rhythm and Holding Attention and

  1. Happy music – Daydreaming – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2hgqYCVodQ
  2. Make It Shinehttp://audiojungle.net/item/make-it-shine/5228750
  3. Future – http://audiojungle.net/item/future/10147941
  4. Electric Daisy Violin- Lindsey Stirling https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxIOUJ7by6U&list=PLE78D43B6CDF92856

Building Recognition, Associations and Reconnecting and Highlighting and Directing Attention

  1. Errors, Highlights – http://www.audioblocks.com/search/?srch-term=error%2C+correct%2C+highlight&srch-type=sfx
  2. Sound loops and effects – http://soundbible.com/royalty-free-sounds-1.html

Making it Fun

  1. Happy Background Music –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrPEoqp4sjg
  2. For a Game, Activity or Challenge – Dramatic Piano Music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4RHh1I9QSo
  3. For an investigation scenario – https://www.freesound.org/people/jputman/sounds/262043/
Where to Look for Music
Top Online Resources for learning more about Music in Learning

 Additional Resources:


Leave your thought here

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *