Memory, Music and Emotion in Learning
Danny Singh, UK
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, has been living in Rome, Italy for the last 18 years, teaching predominantly adults working in companies, politicians etc. He attends Pilgrims TT courses almost every summer as a Guest Speaker. His philosophy on teaching and learning can be summed up by the following: “Who dares to teach, must never cease to learn”. His interests include; high-quality cinema, wine tasting and long-distance walking.
The Complexities of Memory and Learning
Different Kinds of memory
Memory and Emotion
The Power of Music
Memory, music and emotion
How can we apply all this to our teaching and learning?
Memory is one of the most complex subjects known to man. Why is it that there are some things that you just cannot remember? The more you try to remember, the more you forget. Why is it that there are things you have no wish to remember and in some cases they have little importance to you, yet you cannot forget them?
My one-to-one lessons are often interrupted by “urgent” phone calls taken by my students, which may last a couple of minutes. It is amazing how often neither I, nor my student can remember what we were talking about before the interruption. How many great conversations have been ended, as a result of a phone call?
I sometimes go to the kitchen to get something, only to forget the reason I went there in the first place. I then have to return to my original position to help me remember. On other occasions, I may forget where I left something in the house. In order to aid my memory, I go through all my movements again in some kind of chronological order, which usually works. The more agitated you are, the more difficult it is to remember.
When I go to a cash point machine to withdraw money, I have to remember a pin number. I try to picture in my mind the actual position and movement of my hands in pressing the numbers, rather than the numbers themselves. My knowledge of the buses in Rome is so good, that when asked about a particular street, I can often identify the numbers of all the buses that go down that street. The problem obviously occurs in streets where buses do not run.
I enjoy cooking, but while some people love following the instructions in recipe books, the accumulation of cookery books in my home is unlikely to stimulate me. This is not because I cannot read, but that I honestly find following a written down recipe dulls my multi-sensorial needs. All the dishes that I have learned from other people, I have pictured in my mind. I can also sense the smell and taste of the dishes as I prepare them.
My sister lives in a block of eighteen flats. As she has a good knowledge of car brands,
she links each person and their flat number according to the particular car that they drive. Those of us who have good orientation skills, usually use certain buildings, shops or other places that stand out as our points of reference. Each of us has our own individual way of remembering and memorising different pieces of information.
There are many different kinds of memory. One of the most common is habitual memory. This is where one action, is almost always followed by another. A cat will therefore know, simply by observing its owner and his/her movements over a period of time, when it is about to be put to bed or out in the rain. It can therefore escape for a short time, before eventually being caught. Similarly, a small baby can predict as it is being placed into its chair for the umpteenth time, that dinner is about to be served. If the baby is anything like me, it will get excited and gleefully wave its arms all over the place.
Another common form of memory is short-term memory. That is, remembering lots of information in a short period of time. Some students who have a strong short term memory, will use this skill to cram information into their heads just days or even hours before their exams, perform remarkably well, then just as quickly, forget almost all that they studied. Our students often do gap-fill exercises on the same basis. They study a particular grammar structure, perform a few exercises successfully, assume that they have understood it and that they can use it correctly in conversation.
Word association is a good way of memorising vocabulary. That is why presumably, teachers often teach words together that are opposites. Sometimes a word is easy to remember because in some way it sounds silly. If it does, that’s great. The sillier the better. The consequence of this is that I now know some words in Dutch and Slovenian to name a couple of languages, that I will never use in any practical conversation, yet I will never forget them. This contrasts heavily with the view that the more you actively use an expression, the more likely you are to remember it, though this is of course true in most cases. Doing is indeed, one real way of learning.
Having looked generally at the subject of memory and learning, we are now going to examine more specifically two subjects that I consider fundamental to memory and learning; emotion and music.
Those of you old enough will remember what you were doing when news came through of President Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963. Italians all remember what they were doing when the great statesman Aldo Moro was first kidnapped, then murdered in 1978. Even more, they remember what they were doing when they won the football world cup in 1982, not to mention 2006.
With the increase in the power of the media and globalization, the premature death of Princess Diana on 31 August 1997 and the collapse of the twin towers on 11 September 2001 had so much global TV coverage that people all over the world will remember what they were doing when news came through of these two tragedies.
Not only do we remember what we were doing, but also where we were, who we were with, the temperature, aromas, colours and all kinds of trivial information which we normally forget over the course of time. The reason for this is quite simple. The information, which we would not normally remember, is inevitably linked to the emotion experienced. The strength of your memory recall is related to your feelings on the subject. If for example, you have little or no recollection of what you were doing when news of Princess Diana’s death came out, it is not because you have a bad emotional memory, but simply that you are either indifferent or don’t have especially strong feelings on the subject.
Apart from famous world events, there are personal events; birthdays, exam results, weddings, anniversaries, funerals and first loves, not to mention second and third loves, where our memory is inextricably linked to the emotion felt within that experience. Interestingly, most parents remember their child’s first day at school, more than the child him/herself does. Most of us should be able to remember the emotions we felt as we read our school-leaving exam results, what we ate or drank that day and where we spent the rest of the day. We should also find it difficult to forget our first loves, the sensations within as we gazed into our beloveds’ eyes, the aromas and sounds which surrounded us and the warmth of the hot English sun! These emotional memories linger on for years and years.
Music can be amazingly powerful. You only have to think of the Mozart effect, which claims that listening to certain pieces of Mozart’s music can increase learning capacities, making students more creative. It also has therapeutic benefits, such as reducing pains and curing illnesses. Several supermarkets deliberately play certain kinds of music in a bid to try to influence our spending patterns. It has been shown that there is often a connection between the music played in a shop and how much we as customers are prepared to spend.
Think of your favourite TV ads! Why do you particularly like those ones? The reasons are almost certainly linked to the use of humour and music. What about ads that you don’t like? How often have you found yourself humming a tune that you detest, but can’t get out of your head? That’s the power of music!
Every time I return home after attending a “live” music concert, I almost invariably sleep deeply. People use music in a variety of ways; to wake up in the morning, on their journeys to work, while working in the office and before they go to sleep. Some find it helps them when they are studying, others while they are cooking or cleaning. One of the reasons that it can be an incredibly powerful instrument is that it has such an enormous influence on our emotions.
While growing up, the first Olympic games that I followed seriously was the 1992 Barcelona games. A significant factor in that decision was the theme music played by the BBC, Barcelona by Queen. The greatest film that I saw in 1997, though made a year earlier, was Shine. When I burst into tears ten minutes before the end, it was not because of my great sympathy for the main character who had been psychologically abused by his father, nor was it for the condition in which he found himself. You try listening to Rachmaninov’s second and third piano concertos for two and a half hours without shedding a tear!
You cannot think of the film, Death in Venice, without remembering Mahler’s fifth symphony which sets the dismal mood, as Dirk Bogart heads towards his death, which seems to take an eternity. Hitchcock’s most famous scene in Psycho is amazingly effective, not because of the sight of a hand bearing a knife, nor the sound of a girl having a shower behind the curtain, but because of the squeaking violins. Similarly, the music to the film Jaws, sends a tingle down our spines, not simply the picture of a shark swimming towards a boat.
As I have shown, some of the best films rely heavily on music to create the right atmosphere. Even the silent films of Charlie Chaplin are much improved by the music which gives them pace and rhythm. A good friend of mine who is totally blind, lists going to the cinema as one of her hobbies. Yes, I was also a little surprised when she told me, especially when she could describe some films in great detail. She sensed my bewilderment and explained that apart from listening to the dialogues, her strong sensitivity to music as she is herself a qualified piano player, enabled her to create her own picture in her mind.
In 1990, the World Cup football tournament was held in Italy. For the Italians, it ended with Donadoni blasting the ball over the bar in a semi-final penalty shoot-out. The BBC ended its coverage that evening with this image and the sound of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. For over ten years, I had the image of Donadoni missing that penalty every time I heard Nessun Dorma. Thankfully, it ended when I saw a Spanish film, Mar Dentro, in which a paraplegic man who wants nothing more than a dignified death, dreams of himself flying in his bed, playing to the music of, yes you’ve guessed it, Nessun Dorma.
Researchers and linguists have come up with an enormity of ideas linking memory and learning. We have already seen that emotional memory can facilitate learning immensely.
If I have to teach the word blind, I can either give the translation, or give a clear definition. A blind person is a person who cannot see. How long will my students remember that? If I get my students to close their eyes and be guided around the room for a few minutes, having to trust the person guiding them, the experience is so strong that I honestly cannot believe they will forget it easily. Every time they hear the word blind, they will remember that classroom experience.
Aside from this example, we need to escape from the dour and uninspiring material found in numerous books and really get to know our students. Focus on them and what they find interesting! Topics such as childhood can provoke emotions, as can achievements in sport and personal successes.
One of my students had great difficulty with the three main conditionals. He was a big Roma football fan. I gave him real examples, using the performance of his favourite football team. He understood so well, that he was eventually able to use all three conditionals perfectly, citing real examples on a weekly basis. I could feel the emotion coming from within him, as he completed the sentence with, “If Montella had scored, Roma would have won the match.” It works far better than the overused, “What would you do if you won the lottery?” While it is nice to dream from time to time, how many of us actually know someone who has won the lottery?
It is clear from what we have seen that memory and emotion are strongly linked. If we can apply these to our teaching, using some of the techniques mentioned above and others, we will help our students, not only to understand difficult concepts, but also to remember them in the long-term and so encourage and promote “real” learning.
Thanks to emotion and music, certain events remain forever etched in our minds. Once we accept the link between memory, music and emotion, we have to acknowledge that music and emotion are both important learning and teaching tools. Most teachers do not utilise music effectively in the classroom. Some don’t use it at all, while others keep the same disc playing all through the lesson.
To start with, music can help to change the pace of the lesson. Liven things up a bit with some rock or dance music if your students are dozing off. If they are hyperactive, then try some calming, relaxing music. If the lesson is more than an hour, the music should certainly be changing. If you have five activities in a lesson, try using five different pieces of music. That way, when students try to remember the activities, they can link a different piece of music to each activity. You should find that this helps their concentration levels too and they might even be humming or whistling a tune, well after they have left your lesson.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.