Singing and Song Listening to Support Learning in Other Areas

A number of reasons have been put forward for the possible benefits of using songs to support learning and memory in the classroom. This part summarizes our current understanding of some of the ways that listening to songs and singing can support learning and memory in other domains, while developing the learner’s skills in areas reaching far beyond the specific content or “test” material that the teacher may be focused on when using a song in a particular lesson.

Training the Auditory Processing Areas of the Brain

As highlighted in Volume 1, the introduction and Chapter 1 of this volume, our early experiences with singing and songs have long-lasting effects on brain structures and processing. The last 20 years of research have led to the identification of cortical substrates that are specific for the sensory-motor control of singing pitch and are sensitive to the amount of vocal training (Zarate, 2013). Tone-deaf individuals have difficulty discriminating emotions conveyed by different pitch contours in speech when they were unable to rely on the linguistic information (Patel, Foxton, & Griffiths, 2005), whereas musicians perform better and more quickly than non-musicians at perceiving small prosodic pitch incongruities (increased by 35%) in an unfamiliar foreign language (Marques, Moreno, Castro, & Besson, 2007). There is also evidence that musician non-tone language speakers have more accurate brainstem responses to pitch contours extracted from linguistic tones, compared to non-musicians (Wong, Skoe, Russo, Dees, & Kraus, 2007). Thus, even early in life, listening to songs and music can enhance and “fine-tune” auditory processing more generally.

Attention and Memory

There is evidence that during song or music listening, it is enjoyable to make successful predictions about when a new sound or phrase will occur, based on greater fMRI activation of the reward centers of the brain (Salimpoor, Zald, Zatorre, Dagher, & McIntosh, 2015). The beat, rhythmic features and melodic aspects of the musical structure can all enable the learner to predict when the next piece of input will appear, and after becoming more familiar with the piece, what sound to expect; this is also supported by the previously mentioned research showing enhanced brainstem responses to lexical tones in musicians (Wong et al., 2007). Correctly making these predictions about what is coming next, in turn, may support the brain’s ability to sustain and to effectively direct attention (Sridharan, Levitin, Chafe, Berger, & Menon, 2007). This improvement can be so strong that music has been used to train and expand learners’ attention span (Lai, Lai, & Chiang, 2015).

There is also evidence that initial memory encoding and memory' for verbal material may also be improved due to the rhythm and meter, rhymes and melodies found in songs (Tillmann & Dowling, 2007). Their experiments suggest that the rhythm and rhyme structure of poetry' (and similar features in music) are important at the initial encoding stage, perhaps through chunking that helps to bind different features of the stimuli into a coherent whole, so that memory' does not decrease as precipitously over time. For verbal learning, it has been shown that with young children, combining more than one retrieval cue for memory, such as using illustrations, rhyme, and music, can be more effective than using one type of input in isolation (Ziegler, 2007).

A verbal memory benefit, particularly' for speaking tests, was observed for a “listen-and-repeat” singing condition after three presentations of foreign-language material (Ludke, Ferreira, & Overy, 2014), both immediately after the learning period and after a short delay. This suggests that the benefits observed in the native language for musical features to better support and sustain verbal learning and memory' over time (Gardiner, this volume; Tillmann & Dowling, 2007) can also occur for verbal material in a foreign language (see chapters by Kulset; Lempert; Ludke & Good, this volume).

Involuntary Rehearsal

It has been proposed that when rhy'thm and melody' are used to help “chunk” verbal material, this is more likely to lead to involuntary rehearsal and the transfer of the song lyrics into memory. Variously named as “earworms” (Kellaris, 2003) or the “song stuck in my’ head” phenomenon (Murphey, 1990)—a musical version of “din” (Krashen, 1983)—in which words, sounds and phrases that have been heard, read or written are rehearsed involuntarily, occurs significantly' more often in a sung presentation than in a spoken version (Salcedo, 2010; Ludke & Good, this volume). Typical attributes of musical earworms are:

  • • The structure of the song is simple and predictable (Kellaris, 2003).
  • • The melody' line is symmetrical, often consisting of a rise in pitch, followed by' a fall, and the end of the chorus, song or phrase leads naturally back to the beginning, making it more likely' to repeat in your head (Kellaris, 2003).
  • • The rhyme scheme of the lyrics can facilitate recall (Rubin & Wallace, 1989).

The musical characteristics listed above all seem likely' to enhance learners’ memory-based predictions. In other words, if the learner can more easily predict what word will come next because they remember the melody' of the song, that may in turn improve memory retrieval of verbal material which is paired with that melody.

This evidence for involuntary' rehearsal leading to the more effective learning and memory' of song lyrics fits with the dual integration hypothesis, which proposes that listening to songs may lead to the dual encoding of lyrics and melody, where the recall of one element can prompt retrieval of the other (Ginsborg & Sloboda, 2007; Thiessen & Saffran, 2009). Thus, it is possible that part of the reason listening to songs and singing may enhance learning in other areas because the pitch and rhythmic structures, patterned with the syllables and words that are repeated in the lyrics, can provide better initial memory' encoding and later retrieval through the paired melodic-linguistic cues (Ludke & Good; Lempert).

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