Plenty of studies show that rhymes and music can facilitate recall of words, but what if the aim is something beyond verbatim recall — like an actual understanding of what the words mean? Can music help students achieve that somewhat loftier goal?
One of the only studies I know of to tackle this issue has been that of Sandra M. McCurdy, Cindy Schmiege, and Carl K. Winter, whose paper “Incorporation of music in a food service food safety curriculum for high school students” was published in the journal Food Protection Trends in February 2008. Here is the abstract:
Food safety music parodies were incorporated into a 9-lesson foods service food safety curriculum for US high school students. The aim was to determine whether adding food safety songs to an existing foods service food safety curriculum would enhance student knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. 9 song parodies were chosen from those developed by Dr. Carl Winter (available at the University of California Food Safety Music webpage, http://foodsafe.ucdavis.edu/) and were inserted into 9 lessons to reinforce the subject matter. The curriculum was taught both with the addition of music (Music-added, 9 classes) and without it (Control, 8 classes) in 17 high school family and consumer sciences foods classes in Idaho, USA. Student response was measured. Students in the Music-added group, who were also in classes taught by teachers with more experience with this curriculum or who were also in classes with fewer students, had a significantly higher food safety knowledge score than students in the Control group. Students in the Music-added group who were males or students who were also in classes taught by the teachers with more experience with the curriculum scored significantly higher on one of the food safety attitude instruments used in the study. Teachers using the Music-added curriculum were positive about the addition of the songs and reported that it increased the enjoyment of teaching the subject for both themselves and students.
This study was not a “home run” for music-based science education in that, overall, the “music-added” students did not score significantly higher than the control students on any of the study’s readouts of student food safety knowledge and attitudes. However, subdividing the classes based on teacher experience and class size allowed the authors to observe some statistically significant differences, as noted in the abstract.
Commenting upon the factor of classroom size, the authors say, “Smaller classrooms may permit more rapport with students and allow students to feel more comfortable with an innovative change in instructional style.” While this statement is speculative, it certainly is consistent with my own impression that a rapport with students is helpful in getting them to embrace unusual methods.
The authors also note, “It may be possible to make music more effective as an educational tool by aligning the topics covered in the lyrics more closely with specific subjects in each lesson and by writing songs with strong rhythm, rhymes, [and] imagery that emphasize topics in which memorization is required, such as temperatures, microbe names, or sanitizer concentration. Selection of songs for parody that are familiar to the target audience may also increase effectiveness.”
In summary, this study was a heroic first attempt to see whether songs can enhance learning in somewhat older students. One hopes that additional studies will be forthcoming.