The first thing to understand about auditory learning is that it is wrapped in a cloak of myth.

In the early ‘90s, the idea of different “learning styles” was popularized by the VARK questionnaire. The movement suggested that all humans fall into one of five categories: visual learners, auditory learners, reading/writing learners, or kinesthetic learners. The trend took off. Not only did pedagogues add more categories to the list, but learners began identifying with certain styles, and educators began teaching to specific styles. It wasn’t until the last decade or so that the concept of “learning styles” was debunked

Although students may believe that they learn best in a particular style, there is no evidence that they learn or retain information any better by receiving the material in their chosen style. So why has the myth of learning styles persisted? 

While the research does not support different “learning styles,” it’s obvious that learners do have different preferences and abilities. And if learners have a disability with which they physically or cognitively cannot learn through a particular method, it’s important to consider alternate modalities. 

So, even if there’s no such thing as “auditory learners,” auditory learning remains an important tool in any educator’s toolbox. 

Hearing is a powerful sense that can enrich our learning in myriad ways. Because ARISA Lab’s group of Eclipse Soundscapes projects will use auditory techniques to help participants learn about eclipses, in this blog we’ll explore how we hear, the fascinating link between hearing and memory, and the benefits of incorporating sound into education. 

What happens when we hear a sound?

Receiving Sound

When sound waves enter our ears, they travel through the ear canal to vibrate our eardrums. The bones in our middle ear amplify these vibrations, causing fluid inside our cochlea to ripple. This in turn stimulates tiny hair cells in our inner ears. These hairs convert the sound waves into an electrical signal, and send those signals to the auditory nerve. The auditory nerve passes through the auditory cortex of our brain, located in the temporal lobe. Our brain then interprets those signals.

This video from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders gives a great overview.

Perceiving Sound

Most brains are adept at interpreting sounds, especially when it comes to human speech. They’re also great at filtering out background noise — sounds we do not need to process in the moment.

How the brain perceives and interprets heard sounds takes place at a number of levels. 

  • Some perception is reflexive (like a loud sound that causes us to jump)
  • Some perception happens in the auditory cortex
  • Some perception happens in other areas of the brain
    • One part of the brain may recognize a memorized sound, like your mother’s laugh.
    • Another part of the brain may prepare a voluntary response to a question.
    •  Yet another part of your brain might have an emotional reaction to the content of the sound. 

This video from S. Blatrix and R. Puhol, shows the journey of sound through the auditory pathway. 

All of this depends on our level of alertness. If we are asleep, our ears still work. Sound may cause reflexive movement, but the other parts of the brain involved in perceiving sound remain inactive.

How do we learn and remember through sound? 

Hearing and Remembering 

To understand learning through sound, it’s important to consider the unique link between hearing and memory. As Krause and White-Schwoch suggest in Unraveling the Biology of Auditory Learning: A Cognitive-Sensorimotor-Reward Framework, “the precision of automatic sound processing in the brain is linked to cognitive skills such as attention and working memory.”

Humans have a good ability to hold a large amount of auditory information for about 3-4 seconds. For this time we can “replay” the sound in our mind. This is known as “echoic memory.” Repetition, or repeated exposure to a set of sounds, can help us encode information in our long term memory, where it can be retrieved later. Attention is also at play here: while our working memory processes sounds, our ears are still paying attention to all the new sounds coming in. 

Some research suggests that listening is exceptionally good exercise for the brain. Older adults experience rapid cognitive decline when they are not able to hear well. Per contra, studies show that music training may improve memory and linguistic expression. Music reaches parts of our brain that are responsible for attention, emotion, and procedural memory. Patients with Alzheimers can often remember music from their past, and music therapy can activate their brains and improve communication. Such evidence suggests a strong music-memory connection. This connection is the reason why you still remember the words to your high school favorite song (or that terrible chewing gum jingle) years after you last heard it. If remembering is one key to successful learning, is it possible that auditory modalities like music help us learn better?

A Case for Multi-Sensory Learning

The science on the specific benefits of auditory learning has not yet broken free of the confines of “learning styles.” There’s no reason to believe that auditory learning, on its own, is more or less effective than any other sensory form. Instead of focusing solely on auditory learning, educators should consider a multi-sensory approach.

The human brain is uniquely evolved to thrive in a multi-sensory environment. We are designed to process our world through sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. One popular paper on the “Benefits of Multi-Sensory Learning” stated that “multi-sensory training protocols can better approximate natural settings and are more effective for learning.” The hope is that by engaging different areas of the brain, multi-sensory learning could help improve neural connectivity. 

As ARISA Lab Education Director MaryKay Severino put it, the shift from “learning styles” to multimodal learning won’t necessarily change how educators plan activities. Instead of using multi-sensory activities to benefit individual styles, the aim is to use multi-sensory activities to benefit every learner. The change, Severino said, “is how we explain learning to learners themselves. If a learner understands that learning with as many senses as possible will support their understanding, there could be more engagement.”

If learners are engaged and educators are encouraging understanding, the brain will take care of the rest.