Unconscious listening: sound as a pedagogical resource

A group of Spanish researchers is studying how sound and music unconsciously affect children’s attention and emotional response. From the conclusions drawn, they have created the pedagogical resource “Touch the Sound”.

Francis Ford Coppola said that sound is the director’s best friend because it secretly works on the audience. Francisco Cuadrado, the main researcher of the “Unconscious Listening” project, has a very similar outlook. He has been working as a sound designer, composer and researcher for twenty years for this very reason. His studies focus on how the sound elements of audiovisual content provoke emotions in the audience... And not just at the cinema.

We wondered what effects it could have in receptors as sensitive as children, and moreover, how we could take advantage of it to enhance learning,” explains Francisco. That is the objective of “Unconscious Listening”, a Loyola Andalucía University project led by researchers of this university, the Úbeda Teacher Training School and the University of Seville, in collaboration with companies such as BQ.

“We wondered what effects it could have in receptors as sensitive as children, and moreover, how we could take advantage of it to enhance learning”

300 primary and secondary school pupils took part in the study and different types of content (video games, audiovisual and fictional podcasts) and a wide range of sound and music variables were used. During the initial phase, the researchers verified that a significant difference existed between the emotional response and the level of attention generated by 3D sound in a comparison to stereo.

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For example, in the English language comprehension tests, the children who listened to the narration in 3D achieved better grades than the others. For researchers, the fact that this type of audio provides greater immersion is the key.

It was also demonstrated that the effects of sound play a determinant role: the more emotionally pronounced the parameters, the greater the interest generated by the content. However, children did not show signs of having detected differences in their behaviour, which reinforces the hypothesis that these processes take place at a level that is not fully conscious.

Touch the Sound: An ecosystem based in augmented reality

From the conclusions drawn from the study, a team of researchers developed a pedagogical resource based on the use of sound as a means to engage attention during learning. That resource is “Touch the Sound” and it is patent pending. This resource used the IMLS methodology (intelligent music learning system), a musical learning and creation system developed by Francisco during previous research, which is based in augmented reality.

“Touch the Sound” enables the children to create and modify sounds simply by moving pieces, marked with icons, on a flat surface placed in front of a tablet: the device camera detects the figures and activates or changes the sound that corresponds to each one. To create these pieces, the researchers opted for printing them in 3D using BQ Hephestos 2 printers.

“It’s a highly-intuitive, easy-to-use ecosystem which promotes the use of accessible technology, in order to help reduce the digital gap that new technologies are creating in society”, Francisco explains. Within the tablet app, children experience Gale's Journey, which narrates the migration of a group of whales from Alaska to Baja California. This story assembles content from the primary education curriculum in natural sciences, social sciences, EFL and music.

“It’s a highly-intuitive, easy-to-use ecosystem which promotes the use of accessible technology, in order to help reduce the digital gap that new technologies are creating in society”

The last stage of the project consisted in evaluating the usability of “Touch the Sound”, which showed that children learn to use it quickly, that the impact on learning is positive, and that the level of attention and immersion in the activity is high (even in children with special needs, such as ADHD).

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New possibilities

The results of the study, also open the door to new possibilities for use in other contexts, such as working with children with special needs or using musical technology with the elderly.

“There are ever-increasing areas of work on the benefits of music for the elderly in terms of neuronal connectivity, generation of dopamine, personal connection or emotional memory. But elderly persons could have mobility issues or lack the agility needed for playing an instrument or tapping a tablet screen, so moving a piece, which generates an automatic reaction, is very practical for them," explains Francisco.

Although the “Unconscious Listening” project has ended, the line of research continues. The researchers are already working on the future, which lies in exploring the use of this tool in classrooms in depth, especially for children with ADHD, ADD or autism.