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Creating engaging learning experiences in Higher Education: the role of music

7 March 2024

In this blog, Michael Willett, from the Cardiff Learning and Teaching Academy explores the role of music in creating engaging learning experiences in Higher Education.

There are many ways in which we can create engaging and stimulating experiences for our learners. For instance, drawing from a wide range of strategies and approaches documented in the education literature, we may:

  • Intentionally structure our teaching sessions in a specific format or order. For example, Bligh (2000) recommends breaking-up lectures into segments of roughly 20 minutes, with opportunities for active learning between each segment.
  • Use a variety of different kinds of learning activities, where learners can interact, investigate, experiment, create, discover, and so on (see, for example, Young and Perović, 2016; CAST, 2018).
  • Use engaging anecdotes, storytelling or familiar references from media and popular culture to engage learners with complex or unfamiliar content. For example, various scholars discuss using Star Wars as a vehicle to help learners understand and engage with English Literature (Doescher, 2013), History (Reagin and Liedl, 2012) and Engineering (Shostack, 2023).

This blog focuses on how we can also use music to create engaging learning experiences in a wide range of contexts and disciplines at Higher Education level, even when the subject material itself is not musical. This blog complements the March 2024 Cardiff Learning and Teaching Academy ‘World Café’ event on the same theme.

The literature documents a range of ways in which learners and teachers have used music to enhance learning in HE contexts, and which we might consider adopting in our own practice, as shown in the infographic below:

Here at Cardiff University, Dr Emma Yhnell (School of Biosciences) and Dr Andreia de Almeida (School of Medicine) have recently collaborated to develop a series of innovative musical approaches to create more engaging and stimulating environments for learning, most notably in large undergraduate lecture settings. These have included:

  • Song requests’, where students are invited to submit suggestions for songs related to the material and content which are then played at the beginning of lectures. For example, one student requested Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ for a lecture on cardiac muscle.
  • Mini-discos’, where music is used in seminar settings to boost learners’ mood and create a lively atmosphere.
  • Playlists’, where learners are encouraged to work together to build a mini library of songs relevant to the subject area using Spotify, which is made available for the duration of the module and revision period, and which continues to grow throughout this time.

Together, these approaches have received an impressive range of positive feedback from both learners and colleagues, highlighting the value and impact of music on learner motivation, creating welcoming environments and sustaining interest in the subject area. To find out more about this project, please see a short Microsoft Sway case study created by Emma and Andreia.

While the role of music in fostering learning communities might be a relatively new area of exploration for us here at Cardiff, our inspiring educators have used music to enhance learning in other ways for some time. Back in 2007, I was a second-year undergraduate studying English Language. I remember a particularly enjoyable Phonology seminar in the autumn semester led by Professor Gerard O’Grady, where we used the lyrics from our favourite songs to practice phonemic transcription. This simple adaptation – requiring only a pair of headphones and the freedom to choose our source material for transcription – gave us the opportunity to work with familiar phrases and expressions, reduced the frustrations of having to listen to the same thing multiple times, and allowed us to practice transcribing words and phrases in context, rather than isolation. This turned what had initially felt like an impenetrable task into something that was within our grasp, and the mood in the classroom quickly lifted the gloom of a wet November afternoon. The seminar stands out as one of the most lively and engaging learning experiences of my undergraduate degree. I’ve never looked at Bohemian Rhapsody or Summer of ’69 in quite the same way since.

Enhancing learners’ motivation and interest are not the only advantages to incorporating music into our approach. There are a range of other benefits identified in the literature, including:

  • Emotional regulation, and benefits to mental health: Regularly producing or listening to music can improve our ability to process, accept, articulate and regulate emotions (Kim and Kim, 2018; Welch, 2020; Faulkner, 2022; Wang, 2022). There is also a well-documented correlation between music that is up-tempo or in a major key and the perception of happiness in the listener (Juslin, 2020; Gartside, 2022)[1]. Further, research suggests that music with melodic and harmonic elements that are predictable and consonant[2] can trigger a release of dopamine in the brain (Gold, 2019; cf. Daikoku, 2013) – i.e., the sensation of reward.
  • Benefits to physical health: Knight and Rickard (2001) note that engagement with music can lower blood pressure by reducing stress levels.
  • Reduced levels of distraction for some learners (Doyle and Furnham, 2012).
  • Increased levels of learner creativity and the ability to make connections and associations (Wang, 2022; Doyle and Furnham, 2012).

As with any pedagogic approach, there are caveats to consider. Given the diversity of our learners and their needs (Thomas and May, 2010), it is inevitable that some students may not derive the same benefits from the use of music as others. For example, not all learners might find background music relaxing (Haake, 2011; Doyle and Furnham, 2012). Indeed, some neurodivergent learners may find additional auditory stimuli challenging to process. Further, while the effects of music on emotion and stress levels are well-documented, there appears to be little evidence that music can boost levels of productivity, despite the tempting claims of some publications – something Nuhfer (2005) refers to as ‘academic snake oil’. It is also important to consider cultural differences in the tonal systems, production and perception of music, and to ensure that these differences do not create barriers to learning. Finally, it is important to be aware of any legal and copyright implications, which include making sure that any recorded music is not re-captured by our Panopto software.

Given the potential benefits of using music in learning and teaching, this is clearly an area worthy of further exploration. If you have used music to create engaging learning experiences, I would love to hear more, so please do get in touch!

[1] The converse is also true for music with slower tempo and/or in a minor key.

[2] This refers to using particular musical intervals that are widely perceived in Western societies as being ‘smooth, harmonious, and positively valenced’ (Di Stefano, 2022). The opposite is dissonant, or clashing.

Discover more

The World Café & Teaching Clinic on Friday 15 March will focus on the role of music in HE.

Register and find the details on the staff intranet.


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CAST (2018) ‘Universal Design for Learning Guidelines’. Available online at, accessed 16.1.24.

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Haake, A. B. (2011) ‘Individual music listening in workplace settings: An exploratory survey of offices in the UK’. Musicae Scientiae15(1), 107-129.

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Knight W. E. J., and Rickard N. S. (2001) ‘Relaxing music prevents stress-induced increases in subjective anxiety, systolic blood pressure, and heart rate in healthy males and females’. J. Music Ther. 38 (4), 254–272.

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