Turn on the music and use sounds when learning!

How can new digital tools help use sounds and music to create a dynamic and inclusive learning community? Playing AC/DC's song "You Shook Me All Night Long" (link below) as you start reading this post will help illustrate some of the concepts explored by the authors. We invite you to join in!
Turn on the music and use sounds when learning!

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As I write this article I am listening to AC/DC “You shook me all night long”; if you have just played it too, you should now be at the time when the drums enter the scene: soon the singer will start to sing.

I always listened to music at home when I was learning during my studies. I hesitated going to the library because back at my time everybody needed to be quiet at library and it was controlled by the personnel. Recently I spent time at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC in Vancouver, Canada. It was a Saturday evening and hundreds of students were working and learning there. It was pretty quiet although nowadays nearly everybody – including me – had ear plugs listening to music. When asking a student “Why do you hear music? Don’t you think you could concentrate better without music?” he replied: Yes! you are right, but I want to enjoy learning”. Yes he was right, music can help in creating a positive feeling and a positive emotion, and such emotions have an effect on learning.(1,2) So students want to have a positive learning experience (and pass the exam with least efforts). The same applies to teachers as they want students to learn, train, improve and climb up Blooms Taxonomy ladder well.(3)

One main understanding of basic learning theory is, the more senses a learner engages in learning, the better and deeper the learning experience and the better and longer you recall and remember.(4) This idea is based on the reinforcement principle of behavioural psychology  and the “encoding specificity principle”.(5,6) Everybody knows the situation, for example, of the disturbing doppler-effect sounds from a fire brigade siren passing by loudly near the open classroom window when the teacher was explaining the quaternary structure of peptides. Next week everybody will recall that quaternary structures were the thing when there was the siren noise.

So why not simply use music and sounds actively as an effective tool within teaching? But how shall I decide how and which music, and could it really be effective for teaching?

The development of poems in the history of human mankind could be one of the oldest principles to combine language with special combinations of beat and text melody categorized in commend types of verses. And for sure this is also done to memorize both the content and the text of the poem.

For sure, without digital tools you need a musician, orchestra or well-trained parrot to have your background sound or music ready whenever you mention a certain word or principle. Children’s toys such as the German “tiptoi®” or “BOOKii®”, the Taiwanese “Chameleon Reader” or the Estonian “TEEMAPAKETT” implement the principle in child education since 2010. Also advertisement industry and companies use characteristic sounds for long time to strengthen the brand essence and get you to remember them with a certain noise no matter if you want or not.(7) You can close your eyes, you can touch nothing, but most of the time, you can’t turn off your sense of hearing. Even with ear protection you hear something, and low-pitched sounds are always connected with vibrational sensing which in un-turn-off-able.

Digitals tools like Alexa, Siri, and/or AI can easily be trained and used to play a certain sound or snippet of music each time the teacher or a student says “Alanine”, “chiral” or whatever your current learning topic might be. It is easily imaginable that when teaching the “lock and key model” of enzymes a “closing door sound” or “turning the key sound” would be an ideal background noise.

Sounds can be co-aligned in terms of a 'natural human expectation' or misaligned to it. This goes in both directions in terms of associating a bird when hearing a bird-noise or imagining/expecting the sound of a thunder when seeing a lightning. The human expectation of natural accompanying noise is highly pronounced. The late Daniel Kahneman describes the fact that you cannot refrain from orienting to a loud unexpected sound as a completely involuntary mental action denominated as “System 1”, which is the “Think fast” part of his famous titled book “Thinking, Fast And Slow”.(8) The misaligned sounds would be attributed to the “Think Slow” part as here “(effortful) mental activities are demanded to be associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration”.

The use of sound also brings in a spatial 3D-component into learning. We immediately turn our head when hearing a special noise behind, below, above or sideways. Moreover, in this instance, digital tools offer the chance to implement 3D-sounds or surround effects into learning.

To illustrate, the success of Karaoke or Guitar Hero demonstrates the human willingness to imitate given sounds using your one voice or a PlayStationTM controller. This could be useful when combining gamification approaches in teaching combined with sounds. Which student will be best at doing a Karaoke version of the “periodic table song”?

While this approach might appear childish at first glance, teacher and students will soon realize that they “miss” something if you say “lock and key model” and no sound will appear. The opportunities of this idea in teaching are unusual and inexhaustible, but that’s what it’s all about in creating a dynamic an inclusive learning experience. Embracing digital tools offers educators diverse and promising opportunities.(9)

Learning success also comes with challenges in terms of the principle of “desirable difficulty”.(10) It seems to be a natural human urge to identify sounds which one has already heard – a principle being used in guess-shows about noise in radio. Distinguishing same but different sounds could be an innovative way to appeal to the principle of desirable difficulty.

While certain sounds or music may induce different feelings for different students, the challenge is to find a way to generate and implement sounds and/or music that nobody refers to with negative emotions and that ‘naturally’ are associated with the topic or word and thus meeting natural human expectation; or otherwise artificial sounds can be used and thus challenging our brain, with be benefit of better recalling this information as it is non-natural.

New digital tools should address this challenge nowadays easily. Let everybody join a favourite playlist with likes/dislikes in the beginning of class and ask AI to generate music snippets without singing voices. You should now hear the guitar solo and enjoy the creativity of music Angus Young. So, we think the implementation and sounds and music can “shake your students all time round” and that will help them and you to have a positive learning experience.

The possibilities for using sounds and digital tools are listed in the following graphic:

Graphic showing four text boxes covering possible learning principles using sound/noise.

Statement for deaf and noise-sensitive people: We acknowledge that the ideas in this article are not beneficial for deaf and noise-sensitive people and that more research in deaf Education is needed. (11)


  1. Yep, B. L. W.; Tan, T. K.; Fung, F. M. How Partial Anonymity May Reduce Students’ Anxiety During Remote Active Learning─A Case Study Using Clubhouse. Journal of Chemical Education 2023, 100 (2), 459-468. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.2c00051.
  2. Dolan, P. Happiness by design: Change what you do, not how you think; Penguin, 2015.
  3. Benjamin S. Bloom, M. D. E., E. J. Furst, W. H. Hill, David R. Krathwohl. Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. ; David McKay Company, 1956.
  4. Shams, L.; Seitz, A. R. Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends Cogn Sci 2008, 12 (11), 411-417. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.07.006  From NLM Medline.
  5. Tulving, E.; Thomson, D. M. Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review 1973, 80 (5), 352-373. DOI: 10.1037/h0020071.
  6. Skinner, B. F. The technology of teaching; Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968.
  7. Jackson, D. M. Sonic Branding. 2003. DOI: 10.1057/9780230503267.
  8. Kahneman, D. Thinking, fast and slow; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
  9. Fung, F. M.; Blanc, E.; Coumoul, X. Digital Futures of Learning Pharmacology and Medicinal and Organic Chemistry. ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science 2024. DOI: 10.1021/acsptsci.4c00043.
  10. Bjork, R. A.; Bjork, E. L. Desirable difficulties in theory and practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 2020, 9 (4), 475-479. DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.09.003.
  11. Cawthon, S. W.; Garberoglio, C. L. Evidence-Based Practices in Deaf Education: A Call to Center Research and Evaluation on the Experiences of Deaf People. Review of Research in Education 2021, 45 (1), 346-371. DOI: 10.3102/0091732x20985070.

Further Readings

Does Team Teaching Improve Student Engagement in an Age of Digital Learning              

How to create engaging online learning amid COVID-19 pandemic: lessons from Singapore

Digital Futures of Learning Pharmacology and Medicinal and Organic Chemistry

Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

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