The concept of using lyrics and music to teach and to learn is as old as education itself. Before the printed page, and still today, singing songs and ballads or reciting poems or chants have been used to communicate ideas, history, culture, and other information. We may remember the alphabet song, nursery rhymes, and tunes heard on the playground or around the campfire for the rest of our lives. Advertisers have long used lyrics and music to plant commercial jingles firmly in our minds. Why is this so effective? What is it about lyrics and music that makes what we hear and sing to stick in our brains? In this article I would like to share 1) what is now understood from research done in how the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information, and 2) some applications of what I call Lyrical Learning in education.
How The Brain Works: Two Brains In One!: The
We have a "dual brain" system. The left side takes care of organizing, sequencing and analyzing; language skills; mathematics and logical reasoning. The right side takes care of patterns, spatial relationships, and concepts; music, visual arts and poetry; intuition and holistic perception. Because of this, we can better retain and recall what we learn if we combine text with music — the text being processed and stored in the left side, and the music in the right. The concept of "dual-coding" or "multi-modal teaching" deals with using more than one mode (in this case, language and music). Several researchers have found that the use of music, songs, poems, and other musical mnemonics have greatly aided learning for slow learners and learning disabled children. But all of us can benefit from using both sides of our brain!
Something New And Different: Novelty and
Increased Emotional Involvement.
The recall of information is improved when words are put to music partially because of the heightened attention given to something novel — something that is new and/or different. When songs are learned, there is an optimal balance between the redundancy of practicing and the novelty of learning in a way that is interesting. The aspects of interesting lyrics, novelty, and emotional involvement are thought to be what makes history come alive in ballads.
For example in The Battle of New Orleans, a song made popular be Johnny Horton years ago, the who, when, where, and how are stated in the first verse: "In 1814 we took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Missisip; We took a little bacon and we took a little beans, and we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans."
Connections And Grouping: Association and
The association of new words to a known melody, or even a new melody, has been found to be helpful in remembering both. With "chunking", the brain seems best able to process information if it is in "chunks" of about 7 (from 5-9). This concept is easily incorporated into lyrical phrases or musical measures. An example of this is the easily remembered "Alphabet Song," sung to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star": ABCDEFG (7) HIJKLMNOP (9) QRSTUV (6) WXY and Z (5).
One More Time: Repetition
An important part of learning is practice and rehearsal. Just repeating something enough times makes it "stick" in our minds. If that repetition can be made fun, or recreational, it will be more enjoyable and effective. Even just casually listening to something enough times will make it "stick" without much effort!
Contours Of Speech: Rhyme and Rhythm
As a mnemonic device, rhyming has long been used. Rhyming seems to provide a sense of order and harmony of sound. As a pattern, rhythms are processed and stored in the right side of the brain. Especially when combined with rhymes, rhythms found in poems or songs utilize both sides of the brain — the words on the left, the music on the right.
The Way It Looks: Visual Imagery
The way lyrics are written on a page can especially aid those who are more visual learners. Lyrics, as a form of poetry, are often descriptive, specific, concise and packed with meaning. Being able to "see the page" in our minds, verses to a song are more orderly and easier to visualize than more random words and complex sentences found in a text.
Ancient civilizations would pass on stories of their history, as well as their traditions, customs, and other cultural information, by chanting, singing ballads, or reciting poems. More recently, educators have expanded their use of lyrics and music in teaching almost every subject. There are history songs and ballads, math facts songs and raps, songs for learning the states of the USA and countries of the world, grammar songs, and vocabulary songs for English and foreign languages. Science teachers have written songs to help their students learn the Periodic Table of Elements, the Kreb's Cycle, the Laws of Thermodynamics, human anatomy, and the planets of the solar system.
Years ago, while teaching sixth grade life science, I hit upon the idea of putting life science content into lyrical form and set to traditional tunes. Several students were able to quickly learn and easily remember the steps of the scientific method when set to "Dixie." So I proceeded through the text, condensing the content in each chapter — terms and definitions, characteristics used for classification, etc. — into lyrics that fit melodies I thought would be familiar, or at least easily learned and remembered: "Oh Bacteria" to Oh Susanna," "Viruses" to "Yankee Doodle," and "Invertebrates" to "Oh My Darling."
I later developed this into a cassette tape with a text and a consumable workbook. My wife, Dorry, did the layout and design, and we were fortunate enough to have Bobby Horton produce the music. Bobby is an amazingly versatile and accomplished musician who has dozens of CDs, mostly Civil War music, and has been involved with the music for many of Ken Burns’ specials on Public Broadcasting. Using many different instruments (all of which he plays himself!) and a variety of musical styles, he makes the music fun to listen to, as well as memorable.
Over the years, Dorry and I produced two more Life Science text/CD/workbook sets, and then Earth Science: Geology. After 15 years, we’ve heard some wonderful stories of kids having fun learning science, and remembering the songs for years. Students I had in 4th, 5th, or 6th grade reported they were quietly singing these songs to help them on high school biology tests five years later! One homeschooling family had the older children learning the songs, reading the text, and doing the workbook, but the younger siblings picking up on the songs just from hearing them being played and sung around the house. The mom reported getting a lot of heads turning when their two-year-old was sitting in a shopping cart at the grocery store singing "Protozoa, also called Protista; they’re microscopic and they’re single-celled" to "Listen to the Mockingbird."
As a foundation for other ways of learning and knowing, such as hands-on activities and field trips, this approach has proven to be effective with auditory learners especially, and other kinds of learners as well. The purpose is to establish the language of science firmly in the minds of the learners.
Learning science can be like learning a new language, and this method has proven to help learners. Based on research in learning theory and how the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information — the dual-brain system and multi-modal teaching, using novelty and increased emotional involvement, association and "chunking," repetition, rhyme, rhythm, and visual imagery — and based on the experience of teachers and students, using lyrics and music is an effective way to teach and learn.