WACO, Texas — Researchers at Baylor University may have unlocked a melodic mechanism students can use to boost their grades in school. They find that listening to music during a lecture and then listening to the same music again while sleeping that night boosted students’ grades on an exam the next day.
For the study, the authors played classical music by Chopin, Beethoven and Vivaldi for students during an online lecture, and then played the same songs or with noise for them while they slept. The students who heard the classical music while they slept performed better on a test the next day than those that heard white noise.
“All educators want to teach students how to integrate concepts, not just memorize details, but that’s notoriously difficult to do,” says Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s sleep lab and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, in a release. “What we found was that by experimentally priming these concepts during sleep, we increased performance on integration questions by 18% on the test the next day. What student wouldn’t want a boost or two to their letter grade?”
The music serves as a marker for specific memories that are consolidated using a technique called targeted memory reactivation. It’s theorized that during the deep sleep phase of the sleep cycle memories are reactivated and replayed while they are moved from temporary storage to permanent storage in the brain.
“Previous researchers have found that memories associated with sensory cues — such as an odor or song — are re-activated when the same cue is received later. When that happens during deep sleep, the corresponding memories are activated and strengthened,” says co-researcher Chenlu Gao, a doctoral candidate of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor.
Researchers recruited 50 students aged 18-33 for their experiment, and randomly divided them into experimental and control groups. The students completed a polysomnography (sleep study) baseline screening on the first evening of the study.
The next day all of the students took a computer-interactive lecture on microeconomics while soft classical music played in the background. That evening they completed a second polysomnography, only this time the research technician played classical songs or white noise for them when they entered their first deep sleep cycle.
The following day all of the students took a microeconomics exam. Sure enough, the students who heard the classical music were more than twice as likely to pass the test when compared with the control group.
Researchers comment on the genre selection for their study. “We ruled out jazz because it’s too sporadic and would probably cause people to wake,” Scullin says. “We ruled out popular music because lyrical music disrupts initial studying. You can’t read words and sing lyrics — just try it. We also ruled out ocean waves and ambient music because it’s very easy to ignore. That left us with classical music, which many students already listen to while studying. The songs can be very distinctive and therefore pair well with learning material.”
There are limitations to this technique. When students took a follow-up exam 9 months later, all students received an average score of about 25%. This result suggests the effects of targeted memory reactivation aren’t long-lasting.
Scullin hypothesizes that there might be long-term benefits of targeted memory reactivation. “We think it is possible there could be long-term benefits of using targeted memory reactivation but that you might have to repeat the music across multiple nights,” he says. “After all, you wouldn’t just study material a single time and then expect to remember it months later for a final exam. The best learning is repeated at spaced-out intervals — and, of course, while maintaining good sleep habits.”
The study is published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.