Family, School

for the love of music & science


Last weekend we surrounded ourselves with the sounds of the LA Philharmonic.  We were there to hear the trumpet and horn soloists to a program of Mozart and Haydn concertos.   Immediately our sons noted the demographic and asked, “Where are all the kids?”  We were in the Disney Concert Hall, after all.   Music is such an integral part of our lives; even while studying.

After much debate our household was going to put to rest a point of contention between we, the parents, and they, our children.   The youngest child’s science project was going to settle it once and for all.

Which type of music will help me the most (with learning & homework)?

Most evenings as I walk through my garage entry door the bass reverberates against our home’s walls; the loud music emanating from the den where our three sons are plugged into their computers studying and doing homework. The eldest and youngest have headphones upon their heads, listening to classical music.  The middle son blares his dubstep claiming it motivates him to press on with his homework assignments.

Inadvertently the hubs or I find ourselves yelling to turn it down.  That there can be no effective studying with music on at that volume; or with music in general.  The most effective way to learn and retain information is to have a quiet area where one consistently sits; the brain waves primed to absorb all things.

Dubstep. noun. A type of electronic dance music having prominent bass lines and syncopated drum patterns.  “Dubstep.” Def. Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web.8 Feb. 2014.

Classical. adjective. Of or relating to, or being music in the educated European tradition that includes such forms as art song, chamber music, opera, and symphony as distinguished from folk or popular music or jazz.  “Classical.” Def. 3b. Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web.8 Feb. 2014.


And each time our sons argue my point.   Do our grades suffer, Mom/Dad?   I continue on this vain to persecute all things computer, that they spend too much time on them, that they are obsessed with electronics.  But really, what I want is a quiet household with studious kids happily learning and interacting; an unrealistic ideal.   The hubs relented, allowing classical music to quietly play in the background; something that had worked for him during college.  But the music streams through YouTube and my mind sees kids clicking on various websites; distracted away from their job of learning all things important from school.

And so we set out on a simple science project.  Is the optimal environment 1) a quiet one, 2) with classical music in the background or 3) with the beats of dubstep?  Our family was on a mission to find out.

The youngest hypothesized that classical music would be most advantageous to learning; often he is found humming Ravel’s Bolero that continuously plays in my own mind.   The eldest plays Mozart’s Turkish March repeatedly on his playlist.  And the middle son works to the electronica bass beats of dubstep; a type of music I have recently been introduced to.

The hubs and I assisted our son and found worksheets and quizzes online. Some were on paper; others done via computer to simulate the new Common Core State Standards and the testing version of Smarter Balance. We enlisted the older boys to assist with the project to prove their point.  Thus, each of our three sons sat at their own computers and took tests in reading comprehension, vocabulary (synonyms/antonyms), math subtraction (worksheet) and a mixed math worksheet of addition/multiplication/division.  For each time period (no music, classical and dubstep) the boys took a different variation of the test but all boys were taking the exact same test together; which was at a fourth grade level for the youngest.  They all took the test at the same time; immersed in the environment equally.   Since the youngest took part in his own experiment; the hubs was assigned to record the data.

LA RC chartMath chart

After several days of this trial and error (and much moaning from the older sons) I finally sat with the youngest to analyze his data.  Instead, I found myself teaching him the basics of Excel as he learned to create tables and convert data into meaningful percentages.  After much gnashing of teeth from this son, who could’ve chosen to create these graphs by hand, we had some results.

But first, this son and I read through passages of a book we found in our library archives.  It addressed all of the things he sought answers for in his study but this book also is aligned with many books I choose to read about the brain, memory, learning and education.  The son pointed to the passages with a smug smile on his face.  Within its paragraphs were the words my kids had retorted back to me all along.

How we learn

“The higher test scores square with reinstatement theory: The background music weaves itself subconsciously into the fabric of stored memory.  Cue up the same music, and more of those words are likely to resurface….the study environment is impoverished compared to one with music in the background.”

Carey, Benedict.  How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens.  New York: Random House, 2014.  Print.

Sitting in the same place each and every day may hinder learning.  Changing locations and environments add contextual clues to better retrieve the storage of information.  Theories like the “spacing effect” or the “theory of disuse” debunked many of the statements we told our children about maximizing their learning environment.  And the new word that is rooted in my mind is “interleaving;” the process of mixing old and new material in tests so that the student can take the next step in deciphering which path he/she needs to choose to problem solve.  A quiz solely on subtraction automatically primes the tester to only think of subtraction.  A test interleaved with addition, multiplication and division word problems makes the student identify what is being asked,  teaches the test taker to problem solve and better retain the information.

Music can aid in memory retention and learning.

When the stats were tallied the youngest realized classical music did not help him the most in learning, focusing or test taking.  The results were mixed.  The first test of reading comprehension all sons scored low in the quiet den.  Shocked at their low scores they improved with each additional reading comprehension test taken; doing the best to the rhythmic thumps and synth beats of dubstep.    In reading comprehension!  Caveat:  each test was taken in succession versus over several days so improvement could be attributed to becoming accustomed to the questions on the computerized test.  This IS a fourth grade science project.  The fourth grader had better comprehension in reading than his older brothers and he’s not letting them forget it.

Zedd Remix

So what exactly does all this mean?  It didn’t matter what type of environment our sons were in, to take tests, because they were able to retrieve the information and still score well.  They are accustomed to different environments, background noise and distractions.  Anyone who enters our home knows there are multiple things happening at the same time, varying schedules and a lot of noise.  Sons move from their desks, to the couch and to the floors; books opened, music blaring.   It is a mess! Quiet is a rare word in our household; hence my computer moved upstairs.  But even I play music in the background as I learn new information; usually having to do with taxes and accounting.

I’m having to change my way of thinking; about how we learn.  This is music to my ears!


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