The Science Behind The Use of Music by Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly's use of music in training camp raised some eyebrows & some questions.I was one of many Eagles’ fans following the Twitter updates during the team’s OTA Monday.  And I was probably one of the many getting annoyed by the flood of tweets regarding Chip Kelly’s music playlist (more football please!).  But as seems to be the case more often than not with Coach Kelly, there is a reason for everything.   Afterwards, Kelly was asked about including various rock and pop anthems on the practice field.  He answered, “There’s some science behind it…” He didn’t have the time to elaborate, but there are indeed football and non-football reasons for it, and I think they go hand-in-hand.

First, let me preface this by saying that my undergraduate degree is in Psychology, so this kind of stuff – understanding how and why we do what we do, think how we think – fascinates me.  I was able to dig around and found an article by Associate Professor of Education Mary Ann Davies (Northern Arizona University) titled “Learning… The Beat Goes On”, in which Davies summarizes research on how, and how well, music aids our learning and retention of knowledge.  The article was from the journal Childhood Education (Spring, 2000) but was written to encompass education in general.  Reading it within the context of football is really interesting.

Davies explains that music synchronizes the right and left sides of the brain: “The hemispheres of the brain work together when emotions are stimulated, attention focused, and motivation heightened.  Rhythm acts as a hook for capturing attention and stimulating interest.  Once a person is motivated and actively involved, learning is optimized.”  The word “rhythm” here is significant, because not only is rhythm important to music, it is also what a football team seeks to establish on the field.  To this end, rhythm is what Kelly has created within his “periods” of practice.  (Side note: There are many terms/phrases shared between music and football, or between music and sports in general: rhythm, periods, setting the tone, tempo, etc.)

Following this line of research, studies show that playing music in the ear opposite the hand being used in learning a task helps students learn faster than those attempting the task without music.  According to Davies, music “appears to aid the brain in working more efficiently” (we know how Kelly loves efficiency).  And the style of music matters.  Researchers have found that people learned more quickly with dramatic, forboding music than with calm, positive music.  For tactile or body/kinesthetic learners, which I would imagine most football players are, listening to high energy music while being active on the field has its advantages. No Kenny G or Enya here.

Music also aids with memory recollection.  When I was a Psychology student, I learned of a study involving marijuana.  Test subjects were divided into two groups.  One group was asked to study or memorize content for an exam while under the influence of marijuana.  The other group did the same with no marijuana.  Then, each group was divided into two subgroups.  One subgroup took the exam while sober and the other subgroup took the exam while high.  The group which studied sober and tested sober clearly outperformed the other groups, however, the group that studied high and tested high outperformed the groups who either studied high/tested sober or studied sober/tested high.  The point here is that humans can maximize performance when our mental learning state equals our mental testing state.

According to research, music does the same thing. As Davies explains, “Music heightens emotional involvement in learning.  This heightened involvement creates stronger neural connections, which in turn make it easier to remember information.  As an example of how this involvement works, think of a favorite song.  As you ‘play’ the song in your head, chances are you will trigger memories associated with that song.  Music helps us store and retrieve rich, multisensory memories.”  This is significant for Chip Kelly’s football players.  Emotional involvement is key.  The music he has chosen to play at practice is also music that tends to play in stadiums on game day.  This “state-matching” technique will allow players to more easily recall on Sunday what they have learned in practice during the week.

Music creates a positive learning environment.  It reduces stress and increases productivity.   Research suggests (and common sense supports) that too much stress interferes with learning.  Davies explains that stress reduces the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, resulting in mental blanks, a reduced willingness to take risks, difficulty in engaging in higher-level thinking, and more times than not a sense of helplessness.  All things that coaches in the NFL want to minimize.

Music stimulates creativity and complex thinking; its power evokes emotions, an essential ingredient on the football field.  Again, this goes back to matching the mental/emotional learning state to the mental/emotional execution state.  Kelly uses music during practice to duplicate the emotional state created on game day in order to maximize game day execution.  Davies explains further that “the rhyme, rhythm, and repetition of music make it easier to remember facts.  Music captures our attention and balances repetition with novelty, which, in turn, facilitates retention.”  Additionally, our bodies “feel” the rhythm.  The rhythm, the beat, aids our physical sense in the remembering process.

Music helps the human body remember; it reduces stress, increases our higher order thinking skills and enhances creativity.  More importantly, music is pervasive.  It’s by definition, human.  It’s one of the reasons I can’t simply ask “Are you ready for some football?”  Instead, I have to sing it.  For Chip Kelly, music is a primary ingredient in a grander recipe.  Everything he does in practice, on the field and off – starts and stops that mimic commercial breaks, coaching with film, etc. – is done in order to prepare his players for the season, for game day.  Since it is anything but ephemeral, why not make music a part of that?

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Jerome's Friend

Jerome's Friend is a native Philadelphian raised properly by great parents who taught him to love the Eagles and abhor the Cowboys. A new parent himself, he hopes to instill those same fundamental values in his son, who at five months-old can already spike a football. If you follow him on Twitter (@JeromesFriend), you'll also find his Eagles and Philadelphia sports blog, Philly's Inferno, where he resides as a Friend of Jerome.