Garth Brooks brought together Dr. Lana Israel, a globally recognized learning expert, with Bob Doyle, music industry veteran and Brooks’ longtime manager. Their partnership lead to a project that brings Israel’s expertise in learning and their shared love of music to life with a project that is changing education in the United States.
Started in 2015 and headquartered in Nashville, Muzology develops music-based learning solutions that enable all students to achieve and succeed. Its combination of high-quality, trendy-sounding music and challenging school subjects has helped students in subjects that are proven pain points in our education system.
Muzology recently released Love @ First Sound (When Math Met Music), an album featuring their most popular math songs, including songs about fractions, graphing lines and equations.
The free album reached No. 2 on Amazon’s Children’s Music Chart, and features Grammy-winning producer Andy Zulla, Grammy-nominated artist and producer Ryan Toby (Mary J. Blige, Usher, Justin Bieber), hit songwriter Maria Christensen (“Waiting for Tonight,” Jennifer Lopez), and Chris Blue, winner of NBC’s The Voice, among others.
Love @ First Sound (When Math Met Music) is currently in consideration for Best Children’s Album at the upcoming Grammy Awards.
MusicRow spoke to Dr. Lana Israel recently about the birth and mission of Muzology.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I started working in the learning space at about 12 or 13 years old. I wound up, based on my eighth grade science project, writing a book on innovative approaches to learning. I got invited to present my eighth grade research at a global education conference in Sydney, Australia and wound up getting a publishing deal for the book. Within a year I was lecturing globally to teachers, parents, students, and corporate audiences about how to optimize learning, memory, and creativity. So I kind of had my first career as a teenager! I wound up writing two books on learning, and creating multimedia content on learning with Island World Communications out of England, which is essentially Island Records. I really had this fascination at a young age with innovative ways of optimizing learning and potential.
I studied cognitive psych as an undergrad and then I was very honored to receive a Rhodes Scholarship. I did my graduate work at Oxford and did my doctoral work in experimental psychology with a focus on cognitive psychology and memory. When I had received my doctorate and I was actually doing post-doctoral work at Oxford—I joke that I had an early life crisis—I decided to leave academia to pursue another childhood passion of mine: music. I moved to Manhattan and went into the music business. I worked first as the assistant to a songwriter/music producer in New York, Billy Mann (P!nk, John Legend, Celine Dion), an incredibly talented producer whose career just skyrocketed in such a quick amount of time.
What did you learn while working with Billy Mann?
I found myself in the middle of all of this activity in the music business that he had generated, and I suddenly got this hands-on crash course in the music business at the highest of levels. That’s when it occurred to me, as a former memory researcher, that there was something almost magical about music when it came to learning. Because in the learning space, we get excited if we find something—an intervention, a method that leads to a modest improvement in outcomes—as long as it’s replicable and we think we understand, systematically, why we’re getting the effect.
Billy would have writers and producers come into the studio to work with him, and at the end of the day, a song existed that didn’t exist hours before. If an artist recorded that song, and it got played at radio on heavy rotation, millions of people would know every word to that song. I took a step back as a memory researcher, and I said, ‘That’s amazing. This is replicable. This happens for millions of people and that song maybe didn’t even exist a month prior to this occurrence.’ I got pretty intrigued with starting to understand why this effect occurred. I came across a fair amount of neuro-scientific literature, indicating that music directly activates brain regions that are critical for successful learning—namely memory, attention, motivation, and emotion. So then I’m like, ‘Ding, ding!’ It meets those two criteria that we look for in academia: it’s replicable, and we understand systematically why we’re getting the effect.
My third question is, ‘What was the size of the effect?’ I can tell you in the education space, when we find interventions that meet those two criteria, usually the effect that you see is a modest improvement in outcomes—and we get excited when we find those because we don’t find them a lot. But what occurred to me is, if someone hears a song that they haven’t heard for decades, like the song ‘My Girl’ [by The Temptations] for example. You may not have heard that for many years, but all the words still come back to you. That’s not a modest improvement in outcomes. That’s a massive learning effect that we don’t really see with any other medium at scale, but we see it with music.
That’s incredible. How did you parlay your education and experience into Muzology?
I wound up moving to Nashville and to run creative for an entertainment branding company here almost 10 years ago and transitioned into doing some data analytics work, which was a lot of what I did as an undergrad and grad student. I wound up doing consulting work for Bob [Doyle] and Garth Brooks when Garth was getting ready to come back into marketplace after his hiatus, and had the distinct pleasure of working with both of them to see how data and models could help answer questions that were important to them from attraction in the marketplace, sales projections, real-time ticket sales projections, and things of that nature.
That’s when I started talking to Bob a lot about this idea and kept saying to him, ‘Bob, how’d, you learn your ABCs?’ And he’s like, ‘I sang them. What’s your point?’ I said, ‘Well, my point is it’s kind of spectacular that if you unpack the ABCs, it’s an instance of memorizing 26 nonsense syllables in perfect order.’ That’s really a challenging cognitive task that adults can’t do, but babies can do it if you put it to music. As adults, we can do it when we put the information to music. If I asked you, ‘What comes first, P or Q?’ you’re probably going like this right now; ‘L, M, N, O, P…‘
We take for granted that as babies, we can perform this really challenging cognitive task through the use of music, but we shouldn’t take it for granted. We should start to see how can we apply music to the education space in a more systematic, credible way, and that’s how Muzology was born.
How did you get started?
I said to Bob, ‘What if we work with our network of hit songwriters and music producers who are creating the music that kids listen to electively? What if we create a comprehensive and iterative series of high production value, great sounding songs and music videos that teach an entire subject? And what if we pick a subject that’s a really acute pain point for learners and that’s technical enough so that if we demonstrate that we can use music to teach this subject effectively, by extension, we could probably use it to teach anything.’ When we looked at the K-12 landscape, what just leaps off the page as one of the most acute pain points was middle school math or pre-algebra. That is where proficiency in math really drops. It’s the first time girls start underperforming boys. It’s when many parents can’t help their kids with their math homework anymore. In some cases, it’s where some teachers even struggle to communicate the material effectively to kids. So that’s where we began.
Over the last several years, we’ve conducted multiple studies and study after study we continue to see that Muzology’s approach to learning not only improves student performance on quizzes and third party tested diagnostics to statistically significant levels, but equally important, we see massive shifts in students’ self-confidence, self-efficacy and belief in themselves, which has been transformative for many, many learners using Muzology.
How do educators use Muzology?
Some teachers will play the videos in class to introduce math topics. They’ll play the videos while in the course of teaching a math topic, they’ll play the videos as a refresher or for remediation. Teachers can also create custom playlists and assign them to students. So students can work through those playlists in class or at home. Right now you’re seeing a lot of hybrid learning where some kids are still learning remotely, some kids are showing up in class. Whether they’re sitting at the kitchen table or sitting in a classroom, kids can log in individually and work through the videos. We’ve got challenges—silver, gold, and platinum—associated with each music video where kids level up from one challenge level to the next, so they’re able to apply and extend the knowledge that they learned in the music videos. Teachers will use the challenges as a proxy for proficiency on these math topics, they’ll often give quiz grades connected to how students do on our challenge system.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the use of Muzology?
Now more so than ever, there’s a massive need for this approach to learning. That’s part of the reason why we released the album [Love @ First Sound (When Math Met Music)]. We had teachers coming off of school closures last spring, so we made Muzology free for teachers, parents, and students throughout the country for the rest of that last school year and through the summer to do our part in helping support people during a really challenging, unprecedented situation. And we had a lot of teachers reach out and say, ‘Is there a way you could just access the song on a streaming platform? Could you release an album? I want to play it in the car with my kids.’ They wanted much broader access to the material. And what has also become sadly very apparent during COVID-related school closures and remote learning is lack of equitable access to technology and high quality content for low resource students.
In many cases, these students are not learning at home. Learning has just stopped for them, which has tragic and very severe implications. So we released the album of our most popular math songs, and also the songs that cover the most critical foundational math subjects so that all students anywhere could start to access the content.
What feedback have you received so far from educators and students using Muzology?
[The feedback has been] so unbelievable that it even shocked me. I had a teacher call me two times in a row on Friday. She said, ‘I wanted to give you some good news on a Friday. We take state tests that establish the proficiency level of our students. At the beginning of last year, my ninth graders tested at a fifth and sixth grade proficiency level. As did the ninth graders in other ninth grade math classes taught by other teachers. We all teach math exactly the same way.’ She’s the department head, and she said that she and the other teachers give out the exact same assignments. They have a consistent, similar way of teaching math to their students. She said they intentionally ensure that no matter who their teacher is in ninth grade, the student is getting pretty much the same instruction.
She said, ‘The only difference between what I did last year and what the other teachers did, is I used Muzology consistently with my kids all year. We just got back the state test results…all the other teachers’ kids when they tested, they had gone from a fifth and sixth grade proficiency level to a sixth and seventh grade proficiency level.’ But, she said that her kids went from a fifth and sixth grade proficiency level to an eighth and ninth grade proficiency level. All she did was use Muzology.
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