Are you in tune with your students?

Ivor Novello award winner and founder of Studytracks, George Hammond-Hagan, outlines the evolution of an app that sets school subjects to music

Technology has drastically changed the way that we teach in the classroom, and it is now changing the way that pupils study outside the classroom. Studytracks, a programme and smartphone app that puts school subjects to music, uses the latest research in music and memory to develop tracks that help students to form long-term memory.

The influx of technology in the classroom has prompted a sudden rise in educators questioning how students learn best. The question of whether digital or traditional is better seems to have surpassed the age-old question of whether students learn most effectively through visual, auditory or kinaesthetic aids.

I was struck by the difference of studying tactics in today’s students when watching my son prepare for his GCSEs: he preferred to have music on in the background (not quietly might I add), and said that it helped him to stay focused. I took this idea and ran with it.

What’s in a song?

I reached out to teachers, who have since become subject-specific consultants, to advise on subjects and topics that students needed help with. For example, last week we were working with a history teacher who highlights the specifics that absolutely must be covered in English literature. As these are the people who are writing the exam questions, we trust their judgement and make sure we have the tracks in place to support students.

We take a list of key topics and refine them down to an outline of main points. The thinking behind this stage is to ensure that we’re not just copying the material in textbooks, but also that we’re not distilling it down to the content of flashcards – we want to give the students enough context without overloading them.

If you take Romeo and Juliet, for example, we put the highest level points (location, main characters, etc) into two overview songs of about 3-4 minutes each. This allows the listener to wrap their head around the story and gives them an insight into the darkness behind Shakespeare’s often hard to understand language.

We’ll then compose additional songs that focus on the themes, character analysis and author notes (in other words, the areas that examiners want to know that you have an understanding of).

Mix it up

After these outlines are made, the Studytracks team turns them into tracks. This is done primarily by my son Paris, now 19, who was the original inspiration for the app.

We have deals with music libraries all around the world, and spend a significant amount of time finding tracks that really fit the mood of the content. When you’re writing about Elizabethan history, for example, the music is going to be quite different from that of a song on topographical geography. It has to be, because then, when you add the vocals on top, we want to make the content come alive! To make it feel as if you’re there, to put you in the zone, to make it relevant to today’s students!

Our team of 16 has really gotten into the groove of producing high-quality educational content. We have two studios: one in London and one in Los Angeles, meaning that in the holiday period alone, we’ve produced over 800 tracks on subjects ranging from biology to history.

Do you remember?

When asked whether this business idea was based on any research, I have to say that it actually happened the other way around. I had been working on Studytracks for about a year and was really trying to go deep into the research that’s out there on music and memory. With little peer-reviewed research on this topic out there, I reached out to a scientist on LinkedIn to get some more information.

What I found is that there is a lot of research going on now to identify the ways that people memorise things. We know that the brain constantly looks for patterns (which is, of course, what music is based on: patterns in sound). So when you remember music, your brain actually encodes it into your long-term memory differently than it would other things like facts or equations.

Musical memories sit in an entirely different part of the brain and are called ‘Involuntary Musical Images’, colloquially known as ‘earworms’. That’s why, if I start humming ‘It’s a Small World’ in the morning, you’ll catch yourself singing it when you’re going to bed!

We have now partnered with a scientist based in Barcelona who is conducting a thorough study of Studytracks and we hope to get results on that back in coming weeks.

Getting in tune

Studytracks for schools, launched in January 2018, is already being used by over 30 schools in England and California. When a school signs up to Studytracks, every student will get a login, and teachers are able to assign songs – and the tests that accompany them – as homework. They are then able to see real-time updates of which students are interacting with the app and how often. Teachers who have used it have found it to be an effective time-saving tool for both themselves and for their students.

We’re constantly researching and creating new content to make sure students and teachers have plenty to work with. Our overall aim is to get students of all levels engaged in a topic from the get-go, and to be inspired to learn more about it.

If you’re interested to see how Studytracks can work for you and your students, get in touch with us today to arrange a 30-day free trial for your school: