I’ve had the same song stuck in my head for twenty years. It plays through my mind every time I take a road trip, get in a car with my parents or attempt basic multiplication. The melody’s nothing special – simple and repetitive – and I couldn’t tell you who wrote or even sang it. And even if you haven’t heard it, I’m sure the lyrics will be familiar to you: “Four by two is eight (four by two is eight!), four by three is twelve…”
When I was eight, and struggling to conquer elementary math, my parents bought me a CD of multiplication songs. For months, we would listen to it every time we got in the car – no exceptions – and when the CD finished we’d just start it again. It didn’t take very long until I (not to mentioned my tortured siblings) grew to loathe driving anywhere. Even the 60s folk music my parents usually made us listen to would’ve been preferable to that excruciatingly upbeat chanting.
Regardless of my feelings towards the music itself, I have to admit that it worked. By the time a nameless family member snapped and “accidentally” dropped the CD in the driveway, I’d gone from struggling with my seven times tables to going neck and neck with my best classmate in mathematical flash card competitions. And while my multiplication skills are much rustier now, it’s probably only due to that CD that I’ve retained any knowledge at all.
That’s because music is an incredibly powerful memory aid. The structure of a song – its rhythm, its rhyme scheme, its melody – allows us to unlock information stored in the hippocampus and frontal cortex, the two parts of the brain associated with memory. It’s what makes learning tools like the Alphabet Song, learned by English-speaking children worldwide, so effective: the rhyme and the simple melody act as cues for the retrieval of information (the lyrics).
Music plays such an important role in memory retrieval that neuroscientists believe it may have been developed in order to pass information from one generation to the next – which makes it an ideal tool for the sharing of information between teacher and student. Using mnemonics is not only an excellent way to make your lessons stick, but it can be a fun experience in itself.
Encourage students to create their own songs and rhymes to help remember state capitals, or kings of England, or the correct order of mathematical operations. Not a music whizz? Don’t worry: the songs don’t need to be Billboard Hot 100 quality, they just need to be memorable.
Apart from brightening up the classroom, getting your students to make and share their own mnemonics can boost academic performance; a pioneering study by George R Miller in 1967 found mnemonics may increase test scores by up to 77%. They certainly helped me: while I still find traveling with my parents traumatic, never once have I forgotten my four times tables.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.