People often view integrating music into eLearning courses as a strategy to enrich the learning experience. Yet, a deeper dive into cognitive load theory, the coherence principle, and empirical findings in instructional design suggests that non-essential elements like music could detract more than they contribute. This exploration sheds light on the nuanced challenges background music presents in eLearning, particularly in systems training, and how to navigate these waters effectively.

Cognitive load hurts

Cognitive overload lies at the heart of the matter—when complex tasks, disorganized content, or distracting elements such as music exceed the capacity of an individual’s working memory. Imagine attempting to grasp intricate text with music lyrics vying for your attention or following detailed online instructions against a backdrop of music. Such scenarios exemplify how cognitive overload can diminish the efficacy of learning by limiting the transfer of information to long-term memory.

Music can inadvertently increase cognitive load by introducing competing auditory information, while potentially enhancing mood or engagement. This competition can divert attention and working memory resources away from critical course content, making the inclusion of music, with the intent of jazzing up or boosting engagement in a course, counterproductive.

eLearning already hurts

The stakes are particularly high in systems training, where learners must acquire procedural knowledge and skills. Here, learners must synthesize verbal instructions and visual cues into a cohesive mental model of a system’s operation. Alternatively, considering trying to concentrate and understand this article in depth while your family is singing nearby or your favourite song is on the radio. It’s not possible to concentrate on both at the same time. In this context, background music becomes an unwelcome third source of information that contributes nothing towards the learning objectives.

Misguided music beliefs in eLearning

The allure of music as a study aid persists, buoyed by the popular, yet contested, Mozart Effect—the notion that listening to classical music can enhance cognitive abilities. However, research by Nick Perham and Joanne Vizard and Stuart Dobbs, Adrian Furnham, and Alastair McClelland, underscores that music can impair memory performance and interfere with processing verbal information, challenging the efficacy of music as a universal study enhancer.

The Discord of Background Music

Instructional designers face the challenge of crafting eLearning courses that circumvent cognitive overload. The coherence principle advocates for the exclusion of extra words, sounds, and music, guiding designers towards creating more effective learning environments. This principle suggests strategies such as eliminating background music and other distractions, managing intrinsic load by simplifying complex tasks, and selectively integrating music where it serves a targeted, beneficial role.

Designing Harmonious eLearning Experiences

In specific scenarios, music can indeed play a helpful role in eLearning. For instance, in soft-skills training during an opening video story, music might enhance the storytelling. It also has a place in eLearning courses that are more video-like in their feel without much text on screen and more animations and passivity. In essence, music is a key ingredient in creating the mood and tone in videos or eLearning that is like a video. Otherwise, music needs to be used sparingly in an eLearning course.

Summary of music in eLearning

Ultimately, the integration of music in eLearning demands discernment; it’s not universally beneficial and can hinder rather than help the learning process. By adhering to cognitive load theory and the coherence principle, eLearning designers can ensure that their courses are both effective and engaging, without the discord of unnecessary distractions. In the symphony of eLearning design, the thoughtful application of music, or the strategic use of silence, can harmonize the learning experience, underscoring that in some instances, silence is indeed golden.