Music Striking Chord

Music is an important part of my life, as it is for many. But now I’m beginning to realize that it could play a bigger role than we ever imagined in our learners’ experiences. Two recent incidents reminded me just how strongly music connects to memory and learning.

Last week my family and I attended a James Taylor concert. As he played “You’ve Got a Friend,” I cried. The music whisked me away to my wedding, where my new in-laws and my parents danced to that song. It’s a precious memory. Reliving it gave me an intense feeling of joy. The same emotion I experienced 20 years ago.

Music does that for us. Just a few notes of a composition or a flash of a song can immediately transport us back to a particular time and place.

And scientific studies reveal what we all understand intuitively. Psychologist Petr Janata explains that “a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.” His work demonstrates that the medial prefrontal cortex links music and memory, which provides key insights into how music may help Alzheimer’s sufferers. Brain researchers Amee Baird and Séverine Samson are also doing groundbreaking work with “music-evoked autobiographical memories” and brain-injured patients.

What does this have to do with learning? A lot as it turns out. Music not only evokes emotional connection, it can improve mood, focus, and retention.

Which brings me to that second recent incident I mentioned. I went into my 14-year-old daughter’s room and found her with her ear buds in. That’s hardly unusual, except that I had assumed she was learning her lines for a theater camp play. And she was. She has discovered that she actually learns her lines better when she’s listening to instrumental music. And she’s not the only one.

There’s a lot of compelling research showing how music relates to learning and memory:

  • Music improves mood, which increases productivity. Music therapy professor Dr. Teresa Lesiuk has found that moderately skilled workers who listen to their personal choice of music make better decisions, complete tasks faster, and are more creative. In general, they “take in more options.”
  • Music encourages the release of dopamine in the reward area of the brain, which is why music is an integral part of a healthier workplace. And healthier means less stress, and higher production.
  • Dopamine isn’t just about happiness. It also helps improve working memory and focus. When dopamine is released into our brains during a particular experience, we remember that experience. University of Michigan researchers have found that dopamine sends a message that “helps people decide how vigorously to work toward a goal, while also allowing themselves to learn from mistakes.” Dopamine affects both learning and motivation; music affects dopamine.
  • Learning with music is affected by a learner’s musical background. Finnish researchers found that people with more musical knowledge learned better with “neutral” music, while people with less musical knowledge tested better with “pleasurable” music. And, in fact, music training itself increases neuroplasticity, which increases learning.

So, what can we in learning and development take away from all this?

We have to strike the right chord. Music isn’t appropriate to all content and all situations. It must serve the content, the learner, and the client. Instrumental music is typically more conducive to learning than popular songs. And we must be wary of cognitive overload.

But when used strategically and judiciously in elearning courses and other learning sessions, music can “move the learner into deeper emotional and sensory engagement with the content.” And that’s a good thing.


lead change well photo of Michelle Kelly

Michelle Kelly, CEO (Chief Enjoyment Officer)


P.S. If you’re new to using music in elearning, here are 4 basic tips from eLearning Industry to help you get started.


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