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A sound approach - music and audio effects in elearning


Psycho. Chariots of Fire. Titanic. Can you recall the main musical refrain from all these famous films?

Without any visual clue, the majority of people will probably be able to bring the movie music to mind.

In remembering, you may also get a hint of the residual feeling the music is trying to convey; fear and horror, achievement and inspiration, love and loss.

Clearly, it is a powerful tool and the film industry uses it to maximum impact. Music can actually trigger the brain to release a mood chemical, according to research by Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.

But can music work in an elearning module?

There is no right or wrong answer but there is, perhaps, a simple rule of thumb. Music needs to have a deliberate and specific purpose which helps the learner to engage, absorb and retain the content. If it doesn’t contribute to improving the elearning, there is no point.

Emotional connection

Making an emotional connection can be desirable in elearning because a learner is more likely to care, pay attention and engage with the content. But it is a complex area to navigate. Clinical Psychologist, Candy Lawson, points out that ‘the connections between emotion and learning are bi-directional and complex.’ As the earlier film examples show, music is a hugely potent trigger for emotion. So to use it successfully in elearning it has to be deployed wisely.

One example is to use music in support of storytelling within the learning. It can add drama to the narrative or highlight an essential stage. If the story is meant to be compelling or sad, music can give the learner an emotional cue.

Music can be used effectively at the start of an elearning module, especially to set the scene and tone. This worked particularly well in a module we created for a major sports brand. The opening sequence not only guides learners through what they will be learning and why but also seeks to inspire them.

It uses images and phrases from the world of sport along with a soundtrack with a powerful, repetitive beat which adds to the drama. In much the same way as music is used to ‘pump up’ crowds before a sporting occasion, the learner is left feeling motivated and ready for the learning.

Another option is to use music already associated with an organisation. This has advantages as it will already be familiar to the learner and can tap into the brand values of the business.

Sound Effects

You may want to create a scenario or immersive-style experience within your elearning. This can be a useful tool to allow learners to explore a real-life work problem and learn as they try out solutions. Key to this can be creating a believable scene. Sound effects can be an important factor in this, adding to the depth of a scenario and ultimately making it more realistic and relatable.

If you want game elements in your elearning, sound effects have an important role to play. An audio cue can reinforce when a learner gets something right or wrong. Sound can feed into the reward structure of the elearning, so badges or stars are backed up with a positive sound. If using a timer to add faux-pressure or make a task more challenging, an audio representation of time slipping away (tick, tock) can add to the experience.


You will need to be aware of accessibility issues, not only for learners who may have hearing impairment but also those who are learning in a noisy workplace. Think about the volume and duration of music, and whether a mute function is necessary.

Time factor

Another consideration is the time it can take to find exactly the right piece of music or the perfect sound effect. Music is very subjective. It may be easy to find a library full of options but it can be difficult to pick the piece that suits the content in terms of feel and tone while adding to the learning experience. It goes without saying that you need permission for any music you use, even if is already being used by the client.

With sound effects the challenge can be consistency. They are often created as single pieces so matching them within the elearning is not always straightforward. For example, you may find the perfect sound effect to convey a correct answer to the learner but you then have to balance that with a wrong answer sound which doesn’t jar. We recently analysed how long it took to create an elearning game and, rather surprisingly, 25% of the development time was spent on finding the correct sounds. There are various online music and sound effects libraries such as Pond 5 but be prepared to invest some time to make the choice. After all, getting it right is especially important when you are working with as powerful a tool as sound and music.

Author: Alan Bourne, Head of Development at Sponge.