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Einstein and cows are proof that music helps us learn

October 3, 2018

Music provides us with no evolutionary advantage and its origins are a mystery, yet we find it everywhere: weddings, funerals, nursery rhymes, dancing. It moves us in a way that other joyful experiences do not—but as far as we can prove, it doesn’t provide any extrinsic value other than the sensation of experiencing it.

Would you like fries with that?

Music is addictive, and its qualities could be explained by a phenomenon called bliss point, a term coined by market researcher and psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz. Bliss point is the perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat in food that keeps the consumer at the right point of satisfaction, but still engaged in the hedonistic pursuit of more pleasure.

When we hear a great song we experience the right mixture of predictability and unpredictability. It meets our expectations (predictability), but the sound of something new (unpredictability) makes the listener desire to move forward through the song and hear more.

John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology, has a different word for this: appoggiatura. In music, an appoggiatura is an ornamental flair achieved by adding dissonant notes to a melody, displacing the main note before resolving to it. Sloboda states that it’s key to triggering an emotional response in a listener—they hear a violation of their expectancies which then gets resolved in the chord that follows.

Rob Kapilow (composer, conductor and music commentator) used the example of Adele’s Someone Like You. The bolded parts of the lyrics below are examples of an appoggiatura:

“I heard, that you're settled down
That you found a girl and you're, married now

But other than the joy of listening to music—what’s the point?

Cows are the point

A study by psychologists at the University of Leicester found that a cow’s production of milk increased by 3% when listening to slows jams like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts, or Moon River by Danny Williams. However, anything over 100 beats per minute had no effect.

It’s even been suggested that music could have been the driver behind one of the greatest physicists of our time. Einstein stated,

"The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception" (Suzuki, Shinichi. (1969). Nurtured by Love. A New Approach to Education.).  

Because of music’s connection between time and space, and its combination of architectonic, structure, spatial, and temporal attributes, it’s been claimed that music helped Einstein create a mental map of space and time in which to conduct his theories without words or logic. His son even recounted,

"whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties" (quoted in Clark, 1971, 106).

Total recall

Agh, what did I come in here for again? is a question many of us ask when we wander into the kitchen and look around in confusion for a second or two—only to return to the living room and recall that we wanted tea.

Have you ever imagined how easy life would be if we could recall facts and information as effortlessly as we can recall the lyrics to our favourite tune? Music psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for years, and it all comes down to how information is encoded, stored, and triggered in our memories.

Our brain uses various encoders—visual, acoustic, tactile, and semantic—to transform information into memories. We find it easiest to retain details in our short-term memory if we received the information through sound (acoustic encoding), but for things to stick with the long-term memory we need to have found the information meaningful.

When we listen to music, we’re hearing something that provides meaning through sound. Our acoustic encoders add it to our short-term memory, and the emotional meanings we attach to the music create a strong long-term memory.

Short-term memory is stored and retrieved sequentially. If we’re asked to recall the 5th letter of a word, we’ll go through each letter until we get to the fifth. But long-term memories are stored and retrieved through association; this is why sometimes we can remember why we went to the kitchen after we return to the living room, and why listening to a particular song can take you back to your childhood.

How to harness the power of music

So, what can we learn here?

  • We’re more likely to memorise information that provides meaning to us
  • Slow jams which are less than 100 BPM could improve our work output
  • Einstein used music to better understand the complexities of the universe

Keen to harness the power of music? We have a list of a few staff picks below that might help you when starting your playlist.

Meaningful tunes (great for learning):

  • Stand by Me by Florence and the Machine
  • Glassworks: Opening by Philip Glass
  • Far Away by Nickelback
  • Colours of the Wind by Judy Kuhn
  • Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Arthur
  • Somewhere Only We Know by Keane

Working tunes (less than 100 BPM)

  • Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy
  • Dream 3 by Max Richter
  • All My Days by Alexi Murdoch
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel
  • Make you Feel my Love by Adele
  • Good Together by Honne

So, take a leaf out of our bovine buddy’s book, or even one of the greatest physicists of our lifetime, and create your own playlist to learn and work better!