I get a lot of questions about whether or not to add background music to elearning courses. That’s like answering whether or not you should put a blue square in your course. If the blue square makes it a better course, “Yes.” If not, then get rid of the square. The same is true for background audio. It all depends on the context.
Instructional Design 101
Instructional design is about crafting a learning environment to meet specific objectives. Nothing in your course should be accidental or haphazard. All elements that make up the course should be intentional. In that sense you need to ask if the audio you are using will add to or detract from the learning objectives.
When does Audio Detract from the Learning?
Some people like to add background audio to their courses because they know that by itself the course content is somewhat boring. So adding some background audio will jazz it up a bit and makes the course exciting and inviting.
Guess what? If the course is boring, adding audio will only make it boring and danceable. You’re best served to spend your time designing the right type of course and spending less time looking for ways to “jazz it up.”
The course’s goal is to help your learner learn. So when you add audio to the course it should contribute to the learning. In a previous post, I shared a little about cognitive load and how to get your learners to remember more. If the audio doesn’t help, then it offers little value; or worst case, it actually diminishes the value.
- Background audio might impact your working memory. Background audio might conflict with other information. Adding too much information at once might overload the brain’s processing. This impacts how well the learner can recall the information in the course. It probably makes sense to skip this type of audio on crucial learning segments where retention is critical.
- Multiple audio tracks can impact retention. Some studies suggest that combining narration, ambient audio, and background music can impact retention. This makes sense because you’re giving the brain a lot of audio information to process at the same time.
- Narration and background audio aren’t the same things. With narration the risk is that you are sharing information that competes with information that the learner is processing visually. Background audio is not the same since it has no informative value. My guess is that the brain quickly learns to filter it, the same why I do to my kids when I watch boxing. That’s why I wouldn’t get too dogmatic about background audio in all circumstances.
Your ultimate goal is to craft the best learning experience. If the audio adds no value, you’re probably better off getting rid of it than adding it to the course. With that said, some courses are only designed to share information. In those cases, you could probably be a little more liberal in your use of audio than if your goals are real retention and improved performance. In either case, it should not detract from the course content.
When Does Audio Add Value?
Multimedia learning is relatively new and the way we craft elearning is changing. We have everything from the standard page turners to immersive learning games and activities. Because of this, the principles aren’t always the same. What you might apply to a static page with text and narration isn’t going to be the same for a much more interactive activity where retention is more critical.
- Ambient audio contributes to an immersive experience. A role playing scenario is different than specific, step-by-step instructions. In that case, there’s probably some value in using audio to create a more immersive experience. Think of setting the scene where someone is working in a hurried environment with a lot going on…like an emergency room. The proper use of audio and visual design can contribute to creating the right type of situation and context.
- Background audio can create emotional cues. Think of a movie like Jaws. Probably the most memorable part of Jaws is the sound track. In some ways it acted as a narrator. The music kept us at the edge of our seats, telling us, “Be careful, there’s something coming.” There’s no reason why elearning courses can’t employ a similar use of background audio to provide some emotional cues and hooks.
- Music can contribute to changed behavior. There are some studies that suggest certain types of music at set beats per minute can influence how the brain receives information. Perhaps there’s some value in adding a baroque audio track to certain types of elearning courses. Here’s a site with some links if you want to read more about music and the brain.
How are other industries using audio? I already mentioned the movie industry as an example. But you can also glean some ideas from the gaming industry or multimedia news and documentaries. I like the audio slide shows that the New York Times produces.
This one starts with a door slam. It pulls you right in and sets the stage. Then listen to some of the ambient background audio. While it’s subtle, it all adds to the emotional value of the piece because it puts you there. Without the ambient audio, it would lose some of the emotional edge and be a much more sterile and probably less personal piece.
The same is true for your elearning course. There are some courses and topics that can benefit from good ambient or background audio. Next time you’re doing analysis and meeting with learners, stop and listen to what it sounds like where they work. Is there a way you can bring that sound into your course?
Things to Consider
There’s so much variety to elearning and the types of courses that are produced it’s hard to be dogmatic about when and where to use background audio. The main point is less about the audio and more about your intention. Once you know what you want to do, then you decide when and where audio fits in.
- Each element of the course should contribute to the learning. Don’t add audio for the sake of audio. Everything you add to the course from the multimedia content to the activities should exist to satisfy the learning objectives.
- Keep the content relevant. The more relevant the content is to the learner, the more apt they are to pay attention. When it’s not relevant, no amount of background music will “jazz it up.”
- People are complex. While cognitive load theory is an important consideration in course design, we need to be careful not to be too dogmatic about its application. The brain is complex and sometimes the cognitive load discussion seems to be too simple and applied with a broad brush. Like all learning theories, they’ll be refined over time. I see them more as considerations and principles to guide design and less as steadfast rules.
I like the story Malcolm Gladwell tells of the early days of Sesame Street in the Birth of Big Bird. The scientific advisors (probably steeped in sound research) warned against mixing fantasy and reality. If the founders had gone with that advice, the show would have died. Instead, they did mix them and the show proved successful.
There’s probably a lesson in there for us. To learn more about multimedia in elearning and the effective use of audio, it might help to step away from the elearning industry and look at other disciplines that use multimedia, like the advertising, gaming, and movie industries. What can we learn from them?
I’d love to hear how you’re using audio in your courses. Got any tips and tricks? Feel free to share them by clicking on the comments link.