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 to say in part, that sound – in this case music – can be used to alter or control the state of activity in the brain. For the English or foreign language teacher, this means that we can induce a more relaxed, receptive state of input acquisition in our learners using music. Communication between the brain’s millions of nerve cells can be registered by measuring the frequency of these electrical impulses. Researcher Gray Walter discovered in the 1940s brainwave activity tends to mirror visual or auditory frequencies most particularly in the Alpha and Theta brain wave ranges.
To better understand this phenomena and its relationship to learning, first let us look at the four principal frequency ranges of the human brain, Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta.
The Four Brain Wave Types
Brain wave patterns are determined by the frequency of their oscillations. Each range of brain wave activity can be associated with a particular mental state.
From 15 to 30 Hertz (oscillations per second is called Hertz) characterizes a brain in the normal, conscious state actively problem-solving, thinking or otherwise consciously involved with your environment. You are in this state right now while you are reading this. (I hope!)
From nine to 14 hertz is the Alpha range during which your brain activity is slowed down from the Beta state. You’re calm, relaxed and peaceful. This is also the beginning of the brain’s most creative states just below active consciousness and entry into the brain’s meditative states.
At four to eight hertz, you have deepened your relaxed, meditative state. Memories from long ago, dreamlike images and fantasy begin to flow in this state. You are almost, but not quite asleep. One of the most extraordinary states of consciousness, it’s also known as the “twilight” sleep you briefly experience upon awakening or just before drifting off into a deep sleep. In the Theta state we can also be receptive to input beyond our normal conscious awareness. It is widely believed that a state of Theta meditation stimulates intuition and activates extra-sensory perception.
From one to three hertz or oscillations per second, this is normally the slowest of brain wave activity that occurs during a deep, dreamless state of sleep or a very deep state meditation in some cases.
Considering this, when we can induce a more relaxed or receptive state in our learners, they are better able to successfully mentally input, process and retain whatever information, i.e., learning, that we provide. This can well be especially true of language-related input which is seated in the brain’s left hemisphere and cross-linked through the Corpus Callosum to the right hemisphere where music and rhythmic abilities are seated. This essential cross-link dramatically aids in both acquisition and retention.
Application in Teaching and Learning Practice
Try teaching a grammar lesson or segment while playing a soft Mozart selection in the background at a low but recognizable volume. Have the learners practice dialogues with low-volume vocals playing at the same time. Use a song in an unrelated foreign language to “time” a mill or mingle activity. Try having the learners complete a concept-checking or other written exercise while giving them the interval it takes to play musical selection all the way through. Even if they balk at first, they’ll adjust without further complaint within a month of your first using these processes. Within a semester, the learners will be complaining if you DON’T use music with their learning activities.
Using these techniques, the learners’ motivation will rise, overall learning should improve, your English or foreign language learners most likely will be happier and so, my dear pedagogue, will you.