CBE—Life Sciences Education
Vol. 11, 26–30, Spring 2012
Using Science Songs to Enhance Learning:
An Interdisciplinary Approach
Department of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195
Submitted August 8, 2011; Revised November 10, 2011; Accepted November 18, 2011
Monitoring Editor: Marshall David Sundberg
Music is recognized as an effective mode of teaching young children but is rarely used in university-
level science courses. This article reviews the somewhat limited evidence on whether and how
content-rich music might affect college students’ understanding of science and offers practical sug-
gestions for incorporating music into courses. Aside from aiding memorization, songs may poten-
tially improve learning by helping students feel relaxed and welcome in stressful settings, engaging
students through multiple modes (verbal vs. nonverbal) and modalities (auditory vs. visual vs.
kinesthetic) simultaneously, challenging students to integrate and “own” the material through the
medium of song lyrics, and increasing students’ time on task outside of class through enjoyable lis-
sufficient assistance and encouragement by instructors and peers. The challenges ahead include 1)
defining the circumstances in which music is most likely to promote learning and 2) developing
rubrics for evaluating the quality of songs.
While teaching with music is rare in college classrooms, it
has been tried by people such as National Institutes of Health
Director Francis Collins, who occasionally sang to students
at the University of Michigan “to break up the monotony”
(Anonymous, 2011). I myself have used songs for educa-
tional purposes since 2002, when I started sharing content-
engineers; 15–60 students per class). In this essay, I reflect on
what I have learned and what remains to be learned about
supplementing science curricula with music.
Address correspondence to: Gregory J. Crowther (crowther@u
c ? 2012 G. Crowther. CBE—Life Sciences Education c ? 2012 The
American Society for Cell Biology. This article is distributed by
The American Society for Cell Biology under license from the
author(s). It is available to the public under an Attribution–
Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons
“ASCBR ?” and “The American Society for Cell BiologyR ?” are regis-
tered trademarks of The American Society for Cell Biology.
MECHANISMS BY WHICH MUSIC MIGHT
The idea that music might enhance learning in advanced sci-
ence courses, while unproven, is plausible, because there are
several overlapping mechanisms through which songs could
work, at least in theory.
Enhancement of Recall
Mnemonic devices have been defined as “strateg[ies] for or-
of making it more memorable” (Bellezza, 1981). While most
songs do not fulfill the “sole purpose” criterion, they often
orability. Songs generally can be considered organizational
mnemonic devices in the sense of structuring information ac-
cording to meter and rhyme, limiting the possible lyrics that
would fit and thus making recall easier (Bower and Bolton,
1969). Some songs may also operate as encoding mnemonic
devices, in which hard-to-remember words are paired with
more easily remembered words, images, or sounds (Bellezza,
1981). A recent review article questions the notion that music
offers unique benefits over nonmusical stimuli in facilitating
recall of words, yet it concludes, “musical memory is special
precisely because musical stimuli (typically) are structured
Using Science Songs to Enhance Learning
differently from other kinds of stimuli” (Schulkind, 2009). A
related point is that music can evoke strong emotions, which
can enhance some aspects of memory (Levine and Edelstein,
2009). Music therefore may help students memorize key lists,
formulas, definitions, and relationships.
Reduction of Stress
Given that many students feel out of place in science classes
(Osborne et al., 2003), enjoyable music could help these stu-
dents perceive the science classroom as a friendly environ-
ment in which they belong. This idea has some support in
physiological and behavioral studies of how music affects
students. Certain pieces reliably reduce blood pressure, heart
rate, and body temperature in students (Savan, 1999), and
these changes may correspond to reductions in anxiety (Rus-
sell, 1992). In one survey, 75% of college sociology students
reported that lecture-related songs preceding lectures made
them feel more comfortable in the classroom (Albers and
ities; for example, one common taxonomy characterizes
people as visual, read–write, auditory, kinesthetic, or mixed-
modality learners (Baykan and Nacar, 2007). Songs accompa-
nied by visuals and/or movement (e.g., dancing) therefore
have the potential to reach students through multiple modal-
ing that many different regions of the brain can be recruited
in processing musical stimuli (Janata, 2009).
To the extent that music makes homework more fun, it
may cause students to devote more time to this homework
unwilling to read a textbook chapter in preparation for class
might nevertheless listen to a related song, perhaps repeat-
edly. Many students exposed to science songs in class report
enjoying them (Pye, 2004; Crowther, 2006; McLachlin, 2009),
In-Depth Exploration of Content
A doctoral dissertation on the use of science songs in mid-
dle school classes (Governor, 2011) suggests that revisiting
lecture content in an alternative form (i.e., song lyrics) tests
students’ understanding in a way that simply rehashing the
lecture does not. Students may encounter and address points
ilar learning opportunities may arise when students create
their own science songs and, in doing so, make a number of
decisions on how to express their ideas concisely and accu-
which explaining the material in one’s own words is consid-
of what has been learned previously (Balgopal and Wallace,
ARE THE THEORETICAL BENEFITS OF MUSIC
ACHIEVABLE IN PRACTICE?
A few small-scale studies suggest that some of the hypotheti-
classes found that certain subgroups of students performed
significantly better on song-related test questions than stu-
dents who had not heard the songs (McCurdy et al., 2008).
However, the collective evidence summarized in Table 1 is
best thought of as preliminary data awaiting more rigorous
follow-up studies. The central question, of course, is whether
in student learning. To start to address this question, some
stances must be taken on which types of interventions are
most likely to yield gains and which types of learning should
be measured. Regarding the latter, for instance, proof that
songs can improve memorization of scientific words might
come relatively easily; a more ambitious study attempting
to show that songs improve conceptual understanding be-
yond verbatim recall would be more interesting to educa-
tors but also more likely to fail. Many other projects could
also yield interesting data. The “active learning” paradigm,
already validated in several contexts (Michael, 2006; Haak
et al., 2011), could be explored further via a comparison of
passive and active music experiences (e.g., listening to songs
vs. writing them). Analyses of the relative importance of
the possible mechanisms discussed above would be of inter-
est, as would attempts to correlate music’s impact with stu-
dent traits, such as musical aptitude and preferred learning
Preliminary tests of music’s usefulness in science and/or
Summary of studyReference
Students who learned jingles in a
college statistics class scored better
on related test items than students
who read definitions. Scores
correlated with jingle familiarity.
Certain subgroups of high school
students (those taught by
experienced instructors and those
in small classes) scored higher on
food-safety knowledge than
control groups following exposure
to nine food-safety songs.
In a sociology class taught with and
without progressive rock music to
illustrate social theory, students
scored better on multiple-choice
questions after exposure to the
In a large biochemistry course, 44% of
students found “The Histone
Song” (Gilbert, 2006) helpful as a
study aid, while only 11% found it
unhelpful. In smaller courses on
biology for engineers, 86% of
students rated songs as at least
somewhat enjoyable, and 68%
rated them as at least somewhat
helpful to learning.
McCurdy et al., 2008
Vol. 11, Spring 201227
beyond a given course’s final exam is also worth exploring.
(I can still recall a 1993 lecture from my own undergraduate
days, in which my cognitive psychology professor explained
pharmacological desensitization by referencing the Guns N’
Roses song “Mr. Brownstone.”) In terms of methodology, hy-
potheses should be tested in multiple courses and semesters
taught by different instructors (most studies published thus
should be adequate (e.g., in terms of randomization of stu-
dents, statistical power, and assessment techniques) for de-
tecting possible music-related gains in student learning; and
musical interventions should be carefully designed (e.g., ex-
posure to a heterogeneous set of songs may not have a clear
PRACTICAL IDEAS ON TEACHING
Instructors who choose to integrate music into their courses
have several options. From least to most radical, these in-
clude posting song links for students to explore on their own
time, preceding class with a prerecorded song (or inserting
it into a mid-lab break), performing and discussing a song
during class, and assigning students the task of writing and
performing songs. Prewritten and prerecorded songs appro-
priate for specific courses can be found with the aid of online
tools, such as the SingAboutScience.org database (Crowther,
2012). However, teachers may also find valuable examples
in mainstream songs that were not created specifically for
educational use (Lesser, 2000; Last, 2009).
One may ask whether certain biological topics are espe-
cially conducive to a musical approach. My own opinion is
of student problems: conceptual misunderstandings and fail-
ures to grasp hierarchical layers of information. Prewritten
songs may explain concepts in new ways that clash with stu-
dents’ mental models and force revision of those models, or
may organize information for improved clarity (e.g., general
omitted). Songwriting assignments could have similar bene-
fits by forcing students to do the work of concisely restating
concepts in their own words and organizing the information
in a musical format. As an example of using music to counter
course in which my coinstructor complained that many stu-
dents failed to internalize the difference between genotype
and phenotype. I wrote and performed a song to drive home
this distinction, the chorus being, “Genotype, ooh... It’s the
genes you possess—nothing more, nothing less! Versus phe-
notype, ooh... Your appearance and health and reproductive
Teaching with Preprepared Music
sic has been offered elsewhere (Lesser, 2000; Dickson and
Grant, 2003; Pye, 2004; Crowther, 2006); I will summarize
it here by noting a few of my instructional objectives that
seem to be well supported by preprepared music. When my
goal is to demonstrateenthusiasm for the course content, few
maneuvers do this as vividly as singing about that content.
Likewise, when I wish to burn a specific point into students’
memories, unexpectedly bursting into song all but guaran-
tees that they will remember that particular moment of class
for weeks to come. Another of my general goals is to ex-
press support for and solidarity with students; whole-class
sing-alongs and/or recruitment of students to provide mu-
sical accompaniment may convey a sense that the students
and I are working together toward common goals. Finally, to
maintain high levels of student attendance and promptness,
I have started classes with songs that students will not want
Student Learning through Song Composition
Tips for facilitating student compositions can be found in
Fadden encourages students to come up with rhymes based
on the “freestyle method” (saying whatever comes to mind)
and the “alphabet method” (substituting each letter of the
alphabet for the first letter or consonant cluster of a target
word). Additionally, he notes the value of imperfect rhymes
or slant rhymes for expanding students’ lyrical options.
An especially interesting aspect of composing science
songs is the matching of lyrics to music. While awkward
pairings can be humorous, students should be encouraged
to reinforce scientific messages with complementary music
whenever possible. Some instructive examples of this can be
heard in the children’s CD Here Comes Science by They Might
Be Giants (Flansburgh and Linnell, 2009). The old song “The
Ballad of Davy Crockett” is used as a template for a new ver-
sion about an astronaut, implicitly underlining the concept
of space as a “wild frontier” (a phrase from the chorus of the
original). In the song “Solid Liquid Gas,” the tempo changes
(slow), liquids (faster), and gases (fastest). And in “Bloodmo-
bile,” each verse is sung by a different voice representing
a function of the cardiovascular system (delivery of oxygen
and food, delivery of hormonal messages, counteraction of
infections, and disposal of waste), clearly delineating these
While student compositions are not likely to attain the mu-
sical virtuosity of They Might Be Giants, they may nonethe-
less reveal hidden talents and sophisticated understanding.
Four of my former cell biology students summarized the
work of R. D. Allen and his Dartmouth coworkers on or-
“Your Axon Is a Wonderland,” an adaption of the 2002 John
Mayer hit “Your Body Is a Wonderland.” The students’ ver-
move...” The first two lines concisely summarize the exper-
imental preparation (cytoplasm removed from squid axons),
and the next two lines indicate the central topic of the study
(transport along the axons). Other lines included “I’ll use my
microscope” (instead of “I’ll use my hands”), a reference to
Allen et al.’s use of video-enhanced contrast–differential in-
terference contrast microscopy. These sorts of encapsulations
are, quite literally, “take-home messages”: the students can
take them home and sing or hum them again.
Challenges of Teaching with Music
The example in the preceding paragraph, along with others
in the literature (Dickson and Grant, 2003; Pye, 2004; Winter
28 CBE—Life Sciences Education
Using Science Songs to Enhance Learning
et al., 2009), illustrates the temptation to use popular tunes as
scaffolds upon which to hang new science-based lyrics. The
United States Copyright Act of 1976 allows “the fair use of
a copyrighted work.... for purposes such as criticism, com-
ment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies
for classroom use), scholarship, or research.” The act speci-
fies that judgments as to whether a particular use constitutes
fair use depend on four factors: “(1) the purpose and charac-
ter of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial
of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality
of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a
whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential mar-
ket for or value of the copyrighted work.” While factors one
and four appear favorable to educational versions of songs, it
has been argued that “Educators ... cannot lean only on the
idea that what they are doing is for educational purposes; all
four factors need to be considered.... An egregious violation
of just one of the four factors can be enough for a fair use
claim to fail” (Leary and Parker, 2011). Likewise, one cannot
assume that rewriting song lyrics is a form of parody and
therefore is protected free speech, both because parodies are
defined as works that comment upon the works upon which
they are based (which is not generally true of science songs)
and because parodies are judged according to the same four
factors as other derivative works (Keller and Tushnet, 2004).
songs should generally be acceptable in the context of a class
lecture or assignment, but sharing these songs outside of the
classroom is not risk-free.
Copyright issues aside, several other concerns consistently
arise in discussions of educating with music. The diversity
of students’ musical tastes poses practical challenges, for
instance. If no individual song about transcriptional regu-
lation will appeal to all students, does one need to offer a
hip-hop version, a techno version, a country version, and a
hard rock version? Previewing prewritten songs and select-
ing those in one or more preferred genres is possible via the
songwriting projects, I suggest that each student or group be
permitted to create a song in their preferred genre(s), as long
as the science is well covered.
Another frequent concern is the feasibility of getting non-
musician students to write songs. Several strategies can be
applied here. First, tell the students why you created this as-
signment, so they understand the rationale behind it (Felder,
2007). Second, have the students work in groups, allowing
them to specialize according to their abilities and comfort
zones; for example, those who do not like to sing might lead
the writing of lyrics or creation of visuals to accompany the
song. Third, model the behavior expected of the students
(Lesser, 2000)—for example, be willing to sing for the stu-
more generally, create a trusting environment in which cre-
on their songwriting as well as their science. Enlistment of
teaching assistants who can provide this support (and help
grade songs) is especially important in larger-sized classes
(W. Silk, personal communication). Finally, clearly establish
the criteria for grading in advance; students may be relieved
to know that they are not being scored on the quality of their
singing (unless they are). An example of a simple assignment
A sample college-level songwriting assignment and grad-
Criterion Point value
Does the song contain accurate
information (a minimum of four
pieces of useful information about
Are song features well suited for drug
topic: Is the melody concordant with
the way the drug makes people feel
(you would not want a dirge melody
for a stimulant) and is the rhythm
similarly fitting? Is the information
Is the song compelling, interesting to
Four accurate pieces? 12
Sources cited and
reliable? 8 points
Fitting melody? 4 points
Fitting rhythm? 4 points
Logical song structure?
aThe assignment was as follows: The song will be your opportunity
to choose anything from our list of topics that we cover for the other
drugs (side effects, metabolism, administration, and others) about
your chosen drug that you want to highlight (that has a biological
connection). It could be about natural sources of the drug or about
how individual experience varies. It need not be a comprehensive
analysis of the drug. You do not need to perform your song, nor
write out the score (you could just tell me to imagine it is sung to the
melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for instance). Your song will
be graded according to the standards noted.
and rubric, provided by Linda Martin-Morris of the Univer-
sity of Washington, is shown in Table 2. Other examples of
lished previously (Waters and Straits, 2008; Marcum-Dietrich
et al., 2009).
Yet another prevalent worry is that the successful use of
songs by a few charismatic, music-savvy teachers may be
difficult for others to replicate. This too is a legitimate uncer-
tainty, but, in light of the many ways in which music may be
added to curricula, many “normal” instructors may find at
least one of these options to be viable. In addition, a multi-
case study of middle school teachers found that several were
able to integrate songs into classes with few difficulties on
their first attempt (Governor, 2011). While music may not be-
come part of every life science teacher’s toolkit anytime soon,
its potential applications are intriguing.
University of Washington colleagues Wayne Jacobson (now at the
University of Iowa) and Mary Lidstrom provided guidance during
here have been developed in collaboration with Wendy Silk of the
University of California, Davis and her teaching assistant Anthony
Dumas, Kate Clark of Bio-Rad, and Merryl Goldberg of California
State University, San Marcos. These collaborations have been sup-
Silk, principal investigator). I also thank Linda Martin-Morris of the
University of Washington for providing Table 2, Karen Freisem of
the University of Washington for comments on the manuscript, and
Jan Carmikle of University of California, Davis for discussions of
Vol. 11, Spring 201229
social theory. Teach Sociol 29, 471–482.
Albers BD, Bach R (2003). Rockin’ soc: using popular music to intro-
duce sociological concepts. Teach Sociol 31, 237–245.
Anonymous (2011). Francis Collins sings to the 2011 Genetic Coun-
seling graduates. www.youtube.com/watch?v=spinMcv6VbM (ac-
cessed 9 November 2011).
Balgopal MM, Wallace AM (2009). Decisions and dilemmas: using
writing to learn activities to increase ecological literacy. J Environ
Educ 40, 13–26.
Baykan Z, Nacar M (2007). Learning styles of first-year medical stu-
dents attending Erciyes University in Kayseri, Turkey. Adv Physiol
Educ 31, 158–160.
Bellezza FS (1981). Mnemonic devices: classification, characteristics,
and criteria. Rev Educ Res 51, 247–275.
Bower GH, Bolton LS (1969). Why are rhymes easy to learn? J Exp
Psychol 82, 453–461.
Brady ST, Lasek RJ, Allen RD (1982). Fast axonal transport in ex-
truded axoplasm from squid giant axon. Science 218, 1129–1131.
Crowther G (2006). Learning to the beat of a different drum: music
as a component of classroom diversity. Connect 19, 11–13.
Crowther GJ (2012). The SingAboutScience.org database: an educa-
tional resource for instructors and students. Biochem Mol Biol Educ
40, in press.
Dickson D, Grant L (2003). Physics karaoke: why not? Phys Educ 38,
Felder RM (2007). Sermons for grumpy campers. Chem Eng Educ 41,
Flansburgh J, Linnell J (2009). Here Comes Science, Burbank, CA:
Disney Sound, DVD and CD.
Gilbert SF (2006). Song: The histone song (to the tune of “Flint-
stones”). Biochem Mol Biol Educ 34, 111.
Governor D 2011. Teaching and learning science through song: ex-
ploring the experiences of students and teachers. PhD Dissertation,
Athens: University of Georgia.
Haak DC, HilleRisLambers J, Pitre E, Freeman S (2011). Increased
structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in intro-
ductory biology. Science 332, 1213–1216.
Janata P (2009). Music and the self. In: Music That Works, ed. R. Haas
and V. Brandes, Vienna: Springer, 131–141.
Keller BP, Tushnet R (2004). Even more parodic than the real thing:
parody lawsuits revisited. Trademark Reporter 94, 979–1016.
Last AM (2009). Combining chemistry and music to engage student
interest. J Chem Educ 86, 1202–1204.
Math Teach 93, 372–377.
Levine LJ, Edelstein RS (2009). Emotion and memory narrowing: a
review and goal-relevance approach. Cognition Emotion 23, 833–
Marcum-Dietrich NI, Byrne E, O’Hern B (2009). Marrying the muse
and the thinker: poetry as scientific writing. Sci Activ 45, 14–17.
McCurdy SM, Schmiege C, Winter CK (2008). Incorporation of music
in a food service food safety curriculum for high school students.
Food Protect Trends 28, 107–114.
McFadden T (2011). Making educational songs with kids: San
Francisco SLANT teacher’s workshop. www.youtube.com/watch?v
=x6916XMMqjc (accessed 9 November 2011).
McLachlin DT (2009). Using content-specific lyrics to familiar tunes
in a large lecture setting. Collect Essays Learn Teach (CELT) 2, 93–97.
Michael J (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works?
Adv Physiol Educ 30, 159–167.
Osborne J, Simon S, Collins S (2003). Attitudes toward science: a
review of the literature and its implications. Int J Sci Educ 25, 1049–
Pye CC (2004). Chemistry and song: a novel way to educate and
entertain. J Chem Educ 81, 507–508.
Russell LA (1992). Comparisons of cognitive, music, and imagery
Dev 33, 516–523.
Savan A (1999). The effect of background music on learning. Psychol
Music 27, 138–146.
Schulkind MD (2009). Is memory for music special? Ann NY Acad
Sci 1169, 216–224.
VanVoorhis CRW (2002). Stat jingles: to sing or not to sing. Teach
Psychol 29, 249–250.
Waters M, Straits W (2008). Science rocks! A performance assessment
for earth science. Sci Activ 45, 23–28.
Winter CK, Fraser AM, Gleason JB, Hovey SK, McCurdy SM, Snider
OS (2009). Food safety education using music parodies. J Food Sci
Educ 8, 62–67.
Wolters CA, Rosenthal H (2000). The relation between students’ mo-
tivational beliefs and their use of motivational regulation strategies.
Int J Educ Res 33, 801–820.
30 CBE—Life Sciences Education