Engaging Auditory Modalities through the Use of Music in Information Literacy Instruction

Lisa O’ Connor, Editor
Katherine Kimball and Lisa O’Connor, Columnists

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The human body is composed of multiple sensory modalities, and each of them engages a different part of the brain when stimulated. A common assumption of learning theory is that individuals prefer some sensory paths over others for learning, hence the distinction between kinesthetic, verbal, visual, and aural learners.1 Multiple intelligences and learning style theory suggest that teachers engage the widest variety of learners in the classroom by offering differentiated instruction using multiple sensory cues. Research also suggests that all learners benefit from multiple sensory stimuli in learning regardless of their learning preferences because the brain operates at its best in complex environments. We know the brain is “designed” to process many inputs at once—in fact, it actually prefers it so much, a slower linear pace actually reduces understanding.2 Thus a differentiated learning environment that activates multiple sensory paths not only accommodates the particular learning preferences of individuals, it also enhances learning for everyone.

Aural learners prefer learning through hearing. They are particularly receptive to auditory stimuli that involve tone, rhythm, and pitch. Recommendations for providing aural stimuli in the classroom often have been confined to using music as a memorization device (singing the alphabet, for example) or playing background music to enhance the general learning environment. This article will suggest more meaningful ways to use music to teach information literacy (IL) skills and demonstrate that incorporating music is an excellent means for adding interest, variability, and inquiry learning into IL instruction.

Extending Classroom Learning with Music

Because of the constraints on information professionals’ access to learners, IL instruction often occurs in brief, standalone sessions, sometimes called “one-shots” in the literature.3 The one-shot instructional session is a convenient format conducive to the thinly stretched schedules of professors, librarians, and students; however, it has several drawbacks. Incorporating music into IL instruction may ameliorate some of those drawbacks by providing a creative and efficient means for stimulating an additional sensory path to engage the brain in learning.

The first drawback of the one-shot session is time. The traditional fifty to seventy-five minutes allotted for instruction is hardly conducive to achieving complex IL learning outcomes. Kenny calls the one-shot a “trailer for the full-length feature … the ultimate goal for a one-shot … session is to have students actively engage with the librarians and library resources to provide a glimpse into the many ways the library supports student learning.”4 Librarians often find their teaching methods constrained by time and struggle to address IL beyond the skills-building level of training. A common cultural construct, such as music, is useful in providing starting points for analogy and metaphor building, which increases conceptual learning.

While neither the instructor nor the students may have formally studied music, human beings are inherently musical. Studies have shown that rhythmic intelligence is the first of the intelligences to develop: The rhythm of the maternal heart beat and other external sounds, such as music, penetrate the womb and stimulate fetal response.5 By the age of one, children of all cultural backgrounds engage in spontaneous singing (prior even to attaining language), and by age five they are already familiar with musical patterns and recognize when unexpected musical events occur.6 Most students, even international students, have grown up surrounded by examples of Western music, from “Happy Birthday” to the international reach of pop music to the near-ubiquitous Christmas carols. By making connections to music, a subject with which students are already familiar, librarians help students extend their knowledge base more expediently. Alternating between discussions of the abstract concepts (illustrated with musical examples) and concrete applications (e.g., a demonstration of database searching on a topic of interest) enables an efficient, but more conceptually complex, treatment of IL content.

The second problem of the one-shot instructional session is retention and recall. When students are bombarded with information during a brief amount of time—particularly through a single medium, such as lecture—their retention is understandably low. The link between music and memory enhancement is clear. It is astonishing how well people remember songs from the distant past in contrast to people’s retention of other types of information. Alzheimer’s research provides evidence of the music’s powerful connection to the brain.7 Even severely demented patients have a positive response to familiar tunes, indicating that musical memory is deeply rooted. Memory appears to be enhanced by music because it involves the whole brain; when engaged with a song, the left brain (which handles language, logic, mathematics, etc.) processes the lyrics, while the right brain (which handles rhythm, rhyme, pictures, emotions, etc.) processes the music. This is particularly useful for college students, who are accustomed to interacting with information in multiple formats and through a variety of simultaneous stimuli.8

Addressing Information Literacy Standards through Music

The Association of College and Research Libraries’(ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education provide the framework for IL instruction in most academic libraries.9 These standards provide a natural framework for designing IL instruction. What follows will demonstrate how music can be used to teach the core IL competencies described in the ACRL standards typically addressed by librarians.

The first standard asks that the student know that there is an information need and to determine its extent. Concepts that are included under this heading include the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary sources, to understand the potential audience of an information source, and the ability to reevaluate the information need.

One set of musical examples to illustrate the difference between primary and secondary sources is to contrast two recordings of Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks.” Originally written for an assortment of winds and percussion to achieve a military sound (24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, and 3 timpani), today it is most frequently played as a work for the modern orchestra. Most students will have a strong preference for one recording over the other; presumably they will be more comfortable listening to the sounds that are more familiar. While the recordings are being played, the instructor might require the students write a few words or a one-minute paper describing each piece. The answers could be tallied on the board and a consensus reached. Then the instructor could provide some background about the two works and their instrumentation and compare them to information sources. Once the instructor shifts the focus from which piece the students prefer hearing to which one represents a historically accurate performance, the results should swing from one to the other.

The second ACRL IL competency standard requires students to use information retrieval systems effectively. To achieve this goal, students must formulate a search strategy, understand subject-specific and controlled vocabulary, and perform a search across multiple interfaces.

The use of controlled vocabulary can be highlighted by contrasting two works of Western classical music. A Mozart symphony will have a very different vocabulary than a work by the serialist composer Anton Webern. In some compositions, Webern used matrices and mathematical models to determine pitch sequences. This freed him from tonality, the familiar concept of using scales and harmony to determine pitch sequences. Research indicates that at age five, the human brain has a natural understanding of harmonic progression in the same way that an implicit understanding of language has already been formed.10 Webern’s serial compositions, constructed almost randomly, are devoid of the harmonic meaning normally found in Western classical music.

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