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# Earworms in Physics (Guest post from Kate Urell*)

An earworm is a catchy piece of music which stays in your mind long after it has been played.

Some tunes are more likely to become earworms than others. There are a few reasons for this. To truly hook you in, an earworm must be repetitive so that the brain can easily finish it. Generally, it is simple and has a rising and falling pitch shape. Hearing it just once is never enough-You must hear it a number of times and then some lyrics become impossible to escape, as Kylie would say: “Can’t get you out of my head”

Oliver Sacks has described in his book “Musicophilia” these internal music loops as “the brainworms that arrive unbidden and leave only on their own time”. They can fade away but they tend to lie in wait, dormant until an association sets them off again. I make use of this fact in Physics.

I’ve been teaching Physics for a long time. (I won’t say how long, for fear I’ll be accused of doing my old timer routine again.)  Before I explain, I am not advocating for rote learning without understanding. The explanation of the concept always happens first. I use music as a quick memory aid based on common mistakes which students make. I play songs in class linked (sometimes tenuously) to the syllabus. I admit to a slight bias towards music of the 80s and 90s.

I play Bowie’s “Changes” before they draw a graph to remind students to check if they need to change the data before the more impulsive ones proceed to graph angle I vs angle R rather than finding the sin values first in Snell’s Law.  The pupils now associate this song with the movie Shrek. The catchy “Ch…ch…ch” is the irritating tune they hear when I look over their shoulders to check if they have inversed the length or found the square root of tension or squared the time.

When describing how to verify the law of conservation of momentum, students often forget to include the mechanism for making the two trollies stick together after the collision (pin and cork, Velcro, magnets). Naturally this is an opportunity for me to play Roxy Music’s Let’s Stick Together. When calculating the latent heat of fusion of ice, students will often forget that the ice melts and changes temperature so the ml or mcDQ will be dropped. Who could resist playing that most perfect earworm, Vanilla Ice’s, Ice Ice Baby at this moment?

When charging a gold leaf electroscope by induction, the four steps are often not done in the correct order. I play Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger to remind them of the need to earth the disc with your finger. The bold and dramatic Spandau Ballet’s Gold is reserved for Rutherford’s Gold Leaf experiment. Pump up the volume by M|A|R|R|S or Put ‘Em  Under Pressure are obvious candidates for investigating Boyle’s Law. I use Jump Around by the House of Pain or Van Halen’s Jump when causing a current carrying conductor in a magnetic field to experience a force. When we check out the models of the electric motors, I play Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Right Round, Baby.

Some people may think that linking musical lyrics and Physics in this way is a waste of time. However, it introduces some light-hearted humour. The class enjoy slagging my taste in music. Sometimes they introduce suitable songs too. More importantly, this is how my memory works. I link phrases or lyrics to the important thing I need to remember. Auditory information functions as a strong mnemonic. I am not saying that this works for everyone but I have heard my students sing the lyrics to each other while studying in pairs or groups. I smile to myself when I hear them saying phrases “No you forgot the ml, remember it’s Ice, Ice Baby!” as I circulate the room.

Sometimes the musical connections segue into other conversations like the question of how much plastic surgery is too much (Pete Burns) or were the early 1990s the best time to live in Ireland? (Put ‘Em Under Pressure). I have to quickly bring them back on task when that happens as the syllabus is tight.

At the end of sixth year, I hold a quiz where I play a song and they have to link it to the Physics. There are usually a few surprises in there too.

Have a go yourself with the quiz below.

• *You should all follow Kate on Twitter at @The_Urell where she shares many original insights and thoughts on the teaching of physics