Scientists have discovered that there is a definite relationship between brain wave activity, visual stimulation (light), and auditory or sound input. (Kandel, Schwartz, Jessel 1985) That is, in part, that sound, in this case music, can be used to alter or control the state of activity of the brain. For the English or foreign language teacher, this means that we can induce a more relaxed and receptive state of acquisition of information in our students through the use of music. Communication between the millions of nerve cells in the brain can be recorded by measuring the frequency of these electrical impulses. Researcher Gray Walter discovered in the 1940s that brain wave activity tends to mirror visual or auditory frequencies, more particularly in the Alpha and Theta brain wave ranges.
To better understand this phenomenon and its relationship to learning, let’s first look at the four main frequency ranges of the human brain, Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta.
The four types of brain waves
Brain wave patterns are determined by the frequency of their oscillations. Each range of brain wave activity can be associated with a particular state of mind.
From 15 to 30 hertz (the oscillations per second are called hertz) characterize a brain in the normal, conscious state, actively solving problems, thinking, or consciously engaging with its surroundings. You are in this state right now while you are reading this. (Hopefully!)
Nine to 14 Hertz is the Alpha range during which brain activity slows down from the Beta state. You are calm, relaxed and at peace. This is also the beginning of the most creative states of the brain just below active awareness and the entrance to the meditative states of the brain.
From four to eight hertz, you have deepened your relaxed, meditative state. Memories of long ago, dream images and fantasy begin to flow in this state. You are almost asleep, but not quite. One of the most extraordinary states of consciousness, it is also known as the “twilight” sleep that you experience briefly upon waking or just before falling into a deep sleep. In the Theta state we can also be receptive to inputs beyond our normal conscious awareness. A state of Theta meditation is widely believed to stimulate intuition and activate ESP.
At one to three hertz or oscillations per second, this is normally the slowest brain wave activity that occurs during a deep dreamless state of sleep or a very deep meditative state in some cases.
With this in mind, when we can induce a more relaxed or receptive state in our students, they are better able to successfully enter, process and mentally retain any information, i.e. learning, that we provide. This may be especially true for language-related information found in the left hemisphere of the brain and intertwined through the corpus callosum with the right hemisphere, where music and rhythmic skills sit. This essential cross-linking helps dramatically in both acquisition and retention.
Application in teaching and learning practice
Try teaching a grammar lesson or segment while playing a soft selection of Mozart in the background at a low but recognizable volume. Have students practice dialogue with low-volume voices playing at the same time. Use a song in an unrelated foreign language to “time” a mill or mix up an activity. Try to have students complete a concept check or other written exercise while giving them the interval necessary to play the musical selection to the end. Even if they resist at first, they will adjust without further complaint within a month after you first use these processes. Within a semester, students will complain if they DO NOT use music in their learning activities.
Using these techniques, student motivation will increase, general learning should improve, your English or foreign language learners will probably be happier, and so will you, my dear pedagogue.