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Music’s potential to overcome barriers in higher education

14 Oct 2022 | Cordelia Gartside Music’s effect on the brain could have many practical consequences in teaching and learning, and may be used to address some of the most common barriers to engagement in diverse classrooms. Cordelia Gartside, Senior Lecturer in Foundation Year Studies at Bloomsbury Institute London, shares some early research.

Music has always been a culturally significant mode of transferring information. Today, political and sociological viewpoints are shared through songs, and there are records of scientific, poetic, historical, and even magical knowledge being spread via music from at least the 14th century BC.

Now, in contemporary education systems, music is largely reserved for primary schools and English language classrooms, but there is little evidence of music being used in higher education, aside from within specifically related disciplines. Yet contemporary neuroscience confirms that music is an incredibly powerful stimulant upon multiple areas of the brain. This has intriguing implications for the way music might be used in learning environments. As a tutor in a mainly widening participation and international institution, I’m keen to explore the effects music could have on our student body, and its potential to tackle some of the barriers to engagement those students face.


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Barriers to engagement

Alienation from a learning environment is a commonly cited barrier to long-term engagement and can lead to students detaching and withdrawing from education.

Educational alienation refers to a collection of negative attitudes towards a) the learning process, b) the tutors and c) peers. As we continue to welcome students with diverse backgrounds, needs, and histories, we must work towards creating more emotionally supportive study environments. This is where music comes in.

Why music?

Recent neuroimaging software shows that music affects many parts of the brain simultaneously. Listening to music stimulates the emotional, social and memory centres of the brain, as well as different brain ‘depths’: the brain stem; cerebellum, and cerebral cortex. This means that music has an overwhelmingly powerful effect on our experience of the world around us.

We know that listening to music reduces stress and improves mood, but studies show that music can also be used to provoke specific emotional states. This happens through a process called ‘emotional contagion’ (Juslin, 2020). Music with ‘happy’ attributes – up-tempo, major key ­­– widely causes positive emotions in the listener. Conversely, music with ‘sad’ characteristics – slower, minor key – will produce a more melancholy state.

Another fascinating emotional response to music in the brain is ‘rhythmic entrainment’. As we listen to music with a slower tempo, our resting heart rate slows, lowering stress levels and reducing cortisol, while up-tempo music can increase the heart rate, heightening adrenaline and motivation. (Watanabe, Ooishi & Kashino, 2017). These physiological responses can produce distinct emotional states such as focus, energy, or relaxation.

So, it’s clear that music can create positive emotional environments. But how might this address barriers to engagement?

Alienation from the learning environment

A positive emotional environment is key to long term enthusiasm and engagement around learning. Contemporary neuroscience proves that brain networks supporting emotion and those supporting learning and memory are connected (Immordino-Yang, Christodoulou & Singh 2012). This confirms what educators have long suspected:  learning is an emotion-centered process, and the way students feel affects how they learn.

We know that music can have a powerful, positive emotional effect on listeners. This means that music may even have the potential to effect deeper learning (with the knock-on effect of improving individual student success- another motivator for continued engagement with learning). As educators, we can use music to help support and develop those emotions in our classrooms.

Alienation from tutors and peers

Social bonding ­– between peers, and between students and tutors – is a crucial factor in long term student engagement. Listening to music in groups releases the prosocial hormone oxytocin, which is crucial to creating and maintaining strong social bonds (Speranza; Pulcrano; Perrone-Capano; di Porzio & Volpicelli, 2022). Creating activities either centred on or supported by music could, therefore, have a powerful effect on trust and relationship building in the classroom. This has the potential to reduce alienation from tutors and fellow students.

Teaching strategies

I’ve so far considered two core methods of using music in the classroom: passive and active. Neither require students or tutors to produce their own music, though of course, that could be an option.

Passive Use

Facilitating learning by using background music:

  • In individual work, while students complete tasks
  • In active group work, or during group activities
  • While students are entering or leaving the classroom

Active Use

Incorporating music into curricula:

  • Exploiting music’s socio-political contexts to generate classroom discussion
  • Incorporating music into multi-media assessments
  • Using music as a prompt to share personal experiences and reflections

I believe the combination of music, emotion and learning has huge potential in key aspects of teaching and learning. Any thoughts, suggestions or experiences are warmly invited. Contact me at


Cordelia Gartside is a Senior Lecturer on Bloomsbury Institute’s Foundation Year. Her recent research interests are how music affects the brain, and the subsequent impact upon students and learning environments. 



Juslin, P., N. (2020) Neural Correlates of Music and Emotion. In M. H. Thaut & D. A. Hodges (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Brain. 285-332. Oxford University Press.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., Christodoulou, J. A., & Singh, V. (2012) ‘Rest is not idleness: Implications of the brain’s default mode for human development and education’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7 (4), pp. 352-364.

Speranza, L., Pulcrano, S., Perrone-Capano, C., di Porzio, U. & Volpicelli, F. (2022) ‘Music affects functional brain connectivity and is effective in the treatment of neurological disorders.’ Reviews in the Neurosciences: forthcoming.

Watanabe, K., Ooishi, Y. & Kashino, M. (2017) Heart rate responses induced by acoustic tempo and its interaction with basal heart rate. Scientific Reports 7, pp. 438-56.

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