Research shows that the learning process is enhanced when the students can attach an emotion to the subject-matter that they are being exposed to. I suppose it is a process similar to the one of remembering a film: I recall very well the story of “About Time” because it made me both laugh and cry; and I also remember “Godzilla” because it was so boring that I left the cinema before it had ended. Music also serves to trigger an emotional attachment and is useful for enhancing learning in the international law classroom.
Triggering emotions is an arduous task for the international law teacher since, more often than not, the content of some subjects entails providing a fair amount of objective information and analysis. For example, I find the Law of the Sea to be, ironically, a very dry field to teach. The intricacies of the Law of the Sea are very interesting, and this field is constantly on demand: many cases dealt with by the International Court of Justice have to do with maritime boundaries disputes, and the South Sea China issue is far from nearing an end. I therefore insist in keeping this subject in the syllabus but, when it comes to dealing with the delimitation of maritime zones in the classroom, there is not much that one can do to make memorable the fact that the territorial sea may range from 3 to 12 nautical miles.
In The Law of the Sea or any other topic that I teach, I begin each lecture by playing a clip with a song which content is related to the subject, even if loosely.
Students know when to start paying attention
When I play the music video (I normally use youtube), they notice I have arrived and, when the clip is over, they know the break is over. This does away with having to place myself in the middle of the class and clear my throat loudly to send the signal.
It lifts their mood
Frequently I will see that some students are singing along, moving a little bit in their seat or on the stairs. Once they know that this is something I do prior to my lectures, they are expectant and curious from the moment I set foot in the classroom.
They will remember the exact rule the song refers to in the future
For example, the customary international rule governing the right of State to self-defense is called “Caroline”. There are plenty of songs with that name, this year I have gone for “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.
The song works as a memory trigger
I have always been amazed at the fact that students cannot remember the content of the lecture the day after. They are not to blame: they tend to sit for hours in lectures where their role is mostly passive. However, if I ask them the day after about the song, they do remember it and that song allows them to access and activate information about the lecture, even if superficially.
Finding a song related to the topic is not always easy
I am not always able to find the right one, but this should not be an obstacle. For example, in an introductory workshop, as many other law teachers, I need to deal with “What is Law”? I have been using for three years the clip “What is love” by Haddaway due to the phonetical resemblance. Year 3 students still remember that first class: it’s never a bad idea to welcome Year 1 students with some 80s dance moves and a laugh.
Songs may contain foul language and inappropriate content
Once I did not check the lyrics of one song and I realized in an Aula crowded with more than 200 students that the song was highly inappropriate. It was “Caroline” by Outkast, hence my switch to the “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.
Youtube has ads
A small nuisance but the ads are targeted and, as a woman in my 30s, I get a lot of “clearblue pregnancy test” and “pamper nappies” ads which are, in my view, wrong to receive as such even on an individual basis because it is gender and age profiling, and infuriating when this happens in front of a crowd where my gender and age do not have to matter.
They may “over-remember”
For example, I play “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones in the class where I explain State Responsibility and the different forms of reparation (viz. compensation, restitution and satisfaction). When there is an exam question on this, the only form of reparation they remember is “satisfaction”; or when I ask what type of reparation would be appropriate in a case, they also go for “satisfaction”. I have not been able to work out if they would not remember any form of reparation at all if I didn’t play the song, or the song is counterproductive because it overemphasizes one form of reparation to the detriment of the others.
Some students do not like it
Out of 350+ students, very few do not like music being played before class. Some others would not like the particular song chosen for that class. I don’t think this is a reason to discard this technique given that triggering negative emotions will also attain the goal of making them remember and learn.
By the way, my Law of the Sea lecture begins with “Can’t Stop” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I connect this to the explanation of the right of “hot pursuit”, for those who know what this right entails, in this case both the song and the group are chosen on purpose.
I hope this could be of use for other teachers. At least, it is worth a try if it goes with your personality. There is a more serious approach to the music technique: just play classical music. It is soothing and inspiring. I observed this technique when I was working as a teaching assistant in the School of Political Science at the University of Queensland (Australia). The lecturer who used this technique, and on which my own is inspired, was very highly rated in the students’ evaluations. He was a great lecturer, and playing music just added value to his talent.