What makes it work?

Intuitively we know the benefits of music because our personal experiences gives us all the ‘data’ we need to know that it works. Science, and especially recent research, is confirming these experiences. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on research about the use of music in learning.

Here’s an article, originally published in The Open Ear newsletter in 1992, that I have updated for you. It will give you an overview of why music works AND a couple of science principles that are the basis for the why music has such profound effects on us. Most importantly, it gives you the concepts behind how you can use music in your classroom to optimize student learning. For more insights, see Rhythms of Learning: Creative Tools for Lifelong Learning by Chris Brewer and Don G. Campbell.


Find out: How the science principles of entrainment, the iso effect, habituation and simple diversion explain why music affects us.

Find out: How these principles can be used in your classroom for powerful teaching!



Rhythms of Learning 

by Chris Boyd Brewer, MA FAMI

Rhythm is perhaps the most universal aspect of life. In essence, we are rhythm! Science has given us a rich knowledge of the rhythms present in every aspect of life and nature: even the simplest one-celled creatures vibrate with particular rhythm.

Our bodies pulse with the rhythm of breath, heartbeat, cycles of energy and attention, hunger, sleep cycles—every aspect of our existence flows with rhythm. While we may not be consciously aware of the rhythmic cellular dance, or pay direct attention to macrorhythms of seasonal and solar movements, rhythms guide and direct our life.

Personal Rhythms

Each person has a personal tempo depending on their unique pattern of energy and the demands of their daily routines. The brain and body organize these mental, emotional, and physical rhythms. These offer us signals that illustrate a person’s current state. We can learn to read these signals in ourselves and you may be aware of regularly recurring times when you feel tense or experience slumps in energy. And, most importantly for teachers, you can learn to recognize these rhythms in others and use them as cues for how to be most effective in your teaching.

Music and Student Rhythms

The rhythms in music and sound can be used to help us slow down or speed up when we need a change in pace. We can, and do, use music to help us maintain a specific tempo and energy level.

When we understand the effect of sound upon us, we can intentionally use it to create a ‘sound environment’ that gives us the energy we need for the task at hand.

That means, as teachers, we can use the rhythmic, tonal, and emotional elements of music to help students get into an optimal learning state, maintain attention and help them remember information. Educational research has shown that learning experiences occur not only on the level of cognitive thinking, but also with our bodies and emotions. Through music and rhythm, we can integrate all of these aspects into the learning experiences to make learning easier and more effective.

Student-Teacher Rhythms and Entrainment

A good teacher possesses the power to transform the quality of classroom life. The tools teachers use to orchestrate the rhythms of mind, body, and emotion are similar to techniques used in music therapy to direct conscious attention: entrainment, diversion, and the iso principle. Because these tools help to develop learning skills, they are as important as the information presented.

Entrainment, a physics principle, is a foundational concept in music therapy that applies to using music in the classroom. It is the ability to recognize and get ‘in sync’ with the rhythms of another. Ideally, entrainment becomes a two-way street of communication, the avenue by which an exchange of information can lead to the discovery in learning. Entrainment between students and teachers is critical to learning.

Usually students are expected to match the energy and pace of the teacher, no matter what he or she may be experiencing personally. Students either quickly develop a sense of how to be with a teacher, or they may never develop this sense and suffer academically. But when the teacher can develop a sensitivity to students and their rhythms, the foundation of rhythmic teaching is built.

Successful teachers often use the pace of their voice and the classroom mood they set to create a place of harmony and trust that facilitates the discovery journey. Entrainment of teachers to students’ rhythms often occurs when teachers are speaking as they watch student response and adjust the pace, vocal inflections and patterns of their presentation. Doing this usually enhances the student’s ability to receive what is being presented.

Diverting the Rhythms of the Classroom

We quickly habituate to the sound of an automobile when we ride in it or other sounds we constantly hear. When we do, we are no longer consciously aware of the sound but block it out. In the same way, students can habituate to the drone of a voice when it becomes monotonous. When habituation takes place in the classroom, the whole track of learning can be replaced by boredom or frustration, often eliciting negative behavior. Our attention improves when we are presented with a variety of rhythms. That elicits interest and curiosity.

Diversion is one of the most commonly used multisensory teaching techniques for stimulating the classroom away from habituation and boredom. A simple change in the pattern of the voice through the use of dynamic expression or a change in the the tempo of speech, catches the brain’s attention and perks up student attention. Diversion can  be accomplished through a variety of changes: rearranging desks, using music to create a soundbreak, changing the typical flow of daily lessons, or using a different teaching technique.

 Shifting the Mood

A change in tempo and mood is accomplished by slowly altering the class pace in the desired direction–whether that means slowing it down or heightening attention. This mood-shifting is called the iso principle, and is a highly useful teaching tool. Teachers can use this technique to move an individual or even an entire class into a desired classroom experience, creating a space of stress release and rejuvenation, a productive learning state, or excitement for new learning.

The iso principle can be used to move high energy to a state of calm by gradually slowing the teaching pace. Conversely, when student energy is low, this principle can stimulate more enthusiasm. These shifts can be made simply by changes in the speed and tone of your voice, by directing students through energizing (or calming) movements or just playing music of progressively slower (or faster) tempos.

Attuning to Rhythms of Learning

The ability to be sensitive to rhythms and attention levels is a great asset in learning. It’s the first step towards maintaining optimal alertness and increasing learning potential. The key lies in being able to recognize attention and energy patterns and applying techniques for shifting them. Being attuned to rhythms of learning is not another method, it is not a book or a worksheet, it is a process. It may be simply not doing anything, but recognizing that students’ learning may be enhanced by quiet time and space to incubate a thought and to let that thought blossom on its own. Or it may be helping students learn to shift their own rhythms by leading them into a more energized state.

Every teacher will find tools to work with the rhythms of learning that suit their personal abilities and teaching style. Some tools work better than others for particular students and classes.  Teachers are the facilitator of each student’s learning journey, helping them to explore new ideas creatively.

 Using the Sound Environment

We have taken only a glimpse into the power of music and rhythm to educate and engage the learner. By developing insight into personal rhythms and a sensitivity to the effects of music and rhythm, one becomes a conductor and orchestrator of the sound environment. By intentionally using rhythm and music as a tool, you can enhance the joy, the learning, and the health within your life and the lives of your students.


There’s a rhythm in the flow of our lives each day

There’s a rhythm in the patterns of our work and play

There’s a rhythm in our talk

There’s a rhythm in our walk

There’s a pattern that connects me to you

And we can find the rhythm between the two.

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