Let it rock, girls, and fine-tune your learning

The Sunday Times, 12/04/15, teenage girls are being provided with soundtracks for learning in an innovative study to assess the impact of different kinds of music in schools. HMC member school Queen Anne's features and its head HMC member Julia Harrington is quoted.

For the past year, pupils at Queen Anne’s, an independent boarding school for girls in Reading, have been listening to songs by Laura Marling during assembly, Latin American hits in Spanish lessons and tracks by the Black Eyed Peas while playing netball.

The project, created by headmistress Julia Harrington after she attended lectures by Anna Scarna, an experimental psychologist at Oxford, is now to be extended to four other schools, involving 3,500 girls.

They include Grey Coat Hospital School in Westminster, where the Tory chief whip Michael Gove’s daughter, Beatrice, is a pupil and where David Cameron’s daughter, Nancy, will begin this autumn.

Initial results from Queen Anne’s suggest tailoring music to subjects and activities has improved girls’ performance.

“We are developing a tool kit called BrainCanDo to work through different aspects of brain function,” said Harrington. “For the last year we have given it to the teachers and said, ‘Go and use it where you can.’

“My job is to help teenage girls understand what is going in their heads. Their brains are going through a massive process of development, with neurons being regenerated and brain pathways strengthened, which is very exciting.”

The use of music is a part of that project. Chemistry and language teachers have, for example, used songs with clear patterns to help pupils memorise the periodic table and learn verb endings. Those wandering past Spanish lessons might hear the strains of Juan Luis Guerra, a popular Dominican singer.

“The teacher plays a song, Ojala Que Llueva Café by Guerra, in which the musical pattern is predictable. At certain points the song is stopped and the pupils then have to work out the missing words, which all take the subjunctive,” said Harrington. “The girls remember it easily, because the pattern of the music helps them embed it in their memory.”

In PE, girls practise netball to the sound of loud, discordant music, which raises stress levels to replicate the pressure of competitive matches.

“I started off with Requiem for a Dream by Clint Mansell, then I used the theme music from the Saw horror movies and finally I tried blasting out Pump It Up by the Black Eyed Peas, which really pumped the girls up and increased their anxiety and arousal,” said Laura Cox, a PE teacher.

“The first time I played the music, the girls in my top netball team hated it and only scored two baskets in 15 shots. The third time, they scored five out of 11 shots and by the time the two teams went to the county championships, they scored an 85% shooting average which . . . is unbelievable.”

More complex combinations are used for creative subjects such as art and drama. One example is Marling performing with Mumford & Sons and traditional musicians from India. According to one critic, the tracks feature “piercing tonal wails . . . as well as a Tantric swell of banjos and sitars”.

“I tell the girls, ‘Listen to this. It will be uncomfortable for you but it will give you a creative kick,’” said Harrington, who added that, by contrast, pupils settling down to algebra and geometry are played the rather calmer Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart.

“This music is focused on structure, proportion, balance and inner logic, which is what is needed for the patterns of invention that are required for these maths problems,” said Harrington, who believes that helping girls better understand the development of their brains will reduce mental illness. Academics at Goldsmiths, University of London, are working with Queen Anne’s to evaluate the music research, and professors at Reading University are assessing a different aspect of the study, the so-called “contagion factor”, where girls crave the company and respect of their peers.

The brains of girls in the contagion factor study will be scanned using neuroimaging techniques to evaluate if they become more similar as emotional links between the girls grow closer. The results will be shared with the pupils. “This will help students understand when they go to university how to deal with the stresses of being in different groups of people,” said Harrington.

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