of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
Whether we’re reciting lines of Homer or learning the alphabet through song, we utilize our brain’s ability to memorize and synchronize ideas to music from the moment that we can utter sounds. Why, then, are there so many examples of declining public funding for music and the arts? Fortunately, when Sen. Lamar Alexander introduced S 1177— the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015— he set the stage for an amendment that could greatly impact music education. The proposed Opportunity Dashboard of Core Resources amendment focuses on “the whole child” by promoting music and the arts. .
Researchers can point to music as an important part of any child’s learning because musical patterns actually trigger a portion of the memory-making function of the brain. In June 2014, five scientists at the University of Jyväskylä released a study about activity in the hippocampus—a brain structure involved in the creation of long-term memory—when their test subjects listened to the musical phrases of an Argentinian Tango. Their findings? The findings show "an increase of activity in the medial temporal lobe areas—best known for being essential for long term memory—when musical motifs in the piece were repeated.”
Their analysis also illuminates that the emotive powers of music may impact memory. They surmised that ”it wouldn't be surprising that the emotional content of the music may well have been a factor in triggering these limbic responses." Not only do musical phrases and patterns trigger activity in the memory-making parts of the brain, but they also evoke emotional responses that strengthen memory-making processes.
This particular study was conducted to investigate the impact of music on the memory of musical patterns, but what if there is a connection between music and memorizing—or rather, learning— just about anything?
To anyone familiar with “Conjunction Junction” and “Mr. Morton,” this formulation should be less than shocking. These earworm-inducing songs from the beloved educational series Schoolhouse Rock still help many of us remember the parts of speech. The repetition of tunes and similar sentence structures “activates information for active retention,” explains Chris Brewer, creator of LifeSounds Education Services. The music demands a student's attention, as well as impacts their mood, “creating an emotional connection to information.” Much like the neurological study suggests, children’s minds—almost unbeknownst to us—latch on to lyrics and harmonies from the moment they are heard.
Since the introduction of Schoolhouse Rock in the 1970s, many like Chris Brewer have taken note of the educational power of music. One modern example is the technology company Flocabulary. Founded on the belief that, as Flocabulary founder Alex Rappaport told me, there “has to be a better way” to learn, Flocabulary produces hip-hop- and rap-inspired music videos about subjects ranging from numerical division to U.S. presidents—”I’m ill with the quill skills” is just one of my favorite lines from a particularly catchy video starring Thomas Jefferson. Because Alex and his team believe that “a motivated student is a more successful student,” Flocabulary has created songs that keep students engaged and on top of their academics.
When educators can align a student’s emotional presence with the academic curriculum at hand, Alex suggests that the “brain is smiling”—reinforcing the excitement of learning a new piece of information all while learning a new tune to hum on the bus ride home. In line with the Opportunity Dashboard of Core Resources amendment to S 1177, hopefully more school systems will begin to take the research seriously and use music to help keep students’ ears and minds open to learning.
Amanda Wynter works with advocacy organizations at FiscalNote. Reach her via email or Twitter.