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For Better Grades, Try Bach in the Background

• January 02, 2012 • 4:00 AM

New research from France finds students learned more when a videotaped lecture was underscored with classical music.

As every teacher knows, it is one thing to impart information; it’s quite another for students to absorb it, process it, and be able to regurgitate it. New research suggests educators can help this to occur by turning to some old friends: Beethoven, Bach, and Tchaikovsky.

In the journal Learning and Individual Differences, a research team led by Fabrice Dosseville of the Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie describes an experiment featuring 249 university students. All were enrolled in an introductory course in sports psychology.

The students were divided into two groups “that were equal on academic performance.” Each group viewed a different version of an hour-long videotaped lecture on “Expertise in Athletics,” in which the talk was accompanied by synchronized slides.

For one group, the lecture was accompanied by a series of familiar classical pieces, including excerpts from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto. The other group heard the lecture with no background music.

Within 15 minutes of hearing the lecture, all the students took a multiple-choice quiz featuring questions based on the lecture material. The results: the students who heard the music-enhanced lecture scored significantly higher on the quiz than those who heard the music-free version.

The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear. Recent research suggests emotion plays an important role in learning. Perhaps, like the soundtrack to a movie, the background music put the students in a heightened emotional state, making them more receptive to the information being presented.

However, the researchers took the students’ emotional pulse before and after the lecture, and they report any boost in excitement or inspiration cannot fully explain the difference in test scores. It appears more is going on.

“It is possible that music, provoking a change in the learning environment, influenced the students’ motivation to remain focused during the lecture, which led to better performance on the multiple choice quiz,” they speculate.

It will be interesting to see whether this effect can be duplicated in an American classroom and discover whether other instrumental genres of music work as well as the classics. If so, the researchers will be justified in calling background music “a cost-effective way to enhance learning during lectures.” It can’t hurt when your T.A. is W.A. Mozart.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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