• In Other Words

Learning by Ear

by Lawrence Baines
January 10, 2013
My first job in teaching began in January, after the previous teacher abruptly decided—sometime in mid-December—that the time was right to retire. After my first week on the job, I understood, deep in my heart, why retirement had seemed so attractive for my predecessor.

My classes were a blend of chaos, flagrant insubordination, and pure noise. The warning from my favorite college professor had been proven true—“Who controls the sound in a classroom controls the class.” My classes were not being run by me, but by a small set of loud, rude, squirrely, out-of-control adolescents.

Desperate to establish at least some semblance of control, I was ready to resort to punishment, threats, pay-offs, anything. However, I had nothing to leverage. So, I rummaged around in the teacher storage room and discovered two old “listening stations” that had been discarded years earlier by the Spanish department. Each listening station had 10 sets of headphones linked together by a single cord. I brought my music player to school, plugged in the two listening stations, and instantly was able to pipe in music to all twenty sets of headphones simultaneously.

The next week, I established ground rules for what I hoped would be a successful inducement: Students who did their work in class and who were not marked down for egregious misconduct could listen to music at the listening stations for the last twenty minutes of class on Fridays. To my great surprise, the ruse actually worked. The lure of listening to music, free from my teacherly witticisms for a brief period of time, was sufficiently compelling to change students’ patterns of behavior. The noise level in my classroom declined and students began to tone down the frequency and intensity of disruptions.

photo: bjdawes via photopin cc
Unfortunately, the transformation in my classes had little to do with better teaching; instead, the improvement was the result of a brazen struggle for control over sound. My experience made me think Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he noted that “without music, life would be a mistake.”

After doing a little research, I discovered a plethora of scientific studies on the effects of sound on the brain. One group of medical researchers seemed particularly interested in using music to help speed healing after a traumatic illness or surgery. Indeed, music appears to promote recovery after a stroke (Särkämö et al., 2010), to reduce time spent in rehabilitation (Karagozoglu & Yilmaz, 2012), and to aid in the treatment of patients with schizophrenia and severe personality disorders (Hannibal, Pedersen, Hestbaek, Sorensen, & Munk-Jorgensen, 2012).

According to Julian Treasure, who has several talks on the auditory sense available on the TED website (this one is my favorite), there are four possible outcomes of sound:

Physiological—Sound can affect breathing, brain waves, and the heart. For example, the piercing sound of an ambulance’s siren instantly increases the heart rate and alters brain waves.

Psychological—Sound can affect attitude and the sense of well-being. The sound of a bird chirping may offer an aura of security and serenity, while the sound of a rattlesnake’s rattle can provoke fear.

Cognitive—Sound can enhance or undermine the quality of your thinking. According to Treasure, productivity in a noisy, open office can be as much as 66% lower than in a quiet environment.

Behavioral—Sound can influence behavior. For example, the sound of a concrete drill can make people want to run away, while the sound of ocean waves might make people want to relax and stick around.

The literature on sound has major implications for teaching. For example, if noisy, disorganized environments really do decrease efficiency dramatically, then the effectiveness of my lessons in those first few days of January was probably nil. In retrospect, the unruly and boorish behavior of a few students in my poorly supervised classroom likely caused panic and dread among other students who might have actually wanted to learn something. The anarchy must have been almost as much of a living hell for them as me.

On the bright side, with the right tools and appropriate know-how, sound’s power can be harnessed to achieve dramatic, positive results. Using a music- and singing-based program to teach reading, researcher Susan Homan increased the reading skills of struggling readers (including many incarcerated youth with very low reading levels) by 27 to 214%.

Similarly, the potential for having reluctant writers learn to write more effectively by listening and speaking is quite exciting. By using voice-to-text technologies, students might be able to avoid short-circuits that sometimes occur between the formulation of an idea and getting down words on paper.

I have been trying out some new voice-to-text strategies with struggling adolescent writers over the past year. I’ll be presenting preliminary results this April, at the International Reading Association’s 58th Annual Convention, in a session titled “Learning by Ear: Sound Principles for Teaching Reading and Writing.” (Susan Homan is one of my co-presenters.)


Hannibal, N., Pedersen, I., Hestbaek, T., Sorensen, T., & Munk-Jorgensen, P. (2012). Schizophrenia and personality disorder patients’ adherence to music therapy. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry 66(6), 376-379.

Karagozoglu, F., & Yilmaz, F. (2012). Effects of music therapy and guided visual imagery on chemotherapy-induced anxiety and nausea-vomiting. Journal of Clinical Nursing 22, 39-50.

Särkämö, T., Pihko, E., Laitinen, S., Forsblom, A., Soinila, S., Mikkonen, M., Autti, T., Silvennoinen, H., Erkkilä, J., Laine, M., Peretz, I., Hietanen, M. & Tervaniemi, M. (2010). Music and speech listening enhance the recovery of early sensory processing after stroke. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 22, 2716-2727.

Lawrence Baines is a professor of English Education at The University of Oklahoma who has worked in over 350 schools. Baines is obsessed with the peculiar art of teaching writing to adolescents, and co-wrote the book GOING BOHEMIAN: HOW TO TEACH WRITING LIKE YOU MEAN IT (published by IRA) with his buddy, Anthony Kunkel. Visit him on the web at

© 2013 Lawrence Baines. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

Lawrence Baines on Romancing the Topic

Study: Musical training tones the mind, enhances learning


Annual ConferenceScholasticEast Stroudsburg UniversityThe 2 SistersJoin Us!Engaging the Adolescent LearnerResource Catalog