The ninth-graders in Shirley Forehand’s classes are terrified of fractions — but they do like pop music. So over the past school year, she played them music videos, though maybe not the kind once seen on MTV. In one, a young man in a brown cap sings, “A fraction’s simplified/When you can’t divide/The numerator and denominator/By the same number on your calculator.” In another, a woman in a sparkly sweater and black leather pants croons into a gold-spangled microphone about a “special case/To make a mixed number fall in place” — to which the man interjects, a la Lil Jon: “What?”
The math-pop seems to be working: Since 2018, Forehand’s students at Hall High School in Little Rock, Ark., have jumped from third-grade to fifth-grade comprehension levels. The fizzy music videos are the centerpiece of Muzology, a program that started six years ago and is now used for thousands of students in all 50 states. “It’s probably one of the best resources that I’ve got, and I’ve been teaching for 25 years,” says Forehand, head of Hall’s math department. “It reminded me of what I grew up on: Schoolhouse Rock, but on steroids.”
Muzology is the brainchild of an actual brain expert, Dr. Lana Israel, a Rhodes scholar and memory expert who moved to New York and made a left turn into the music business in 2002. After working as an assistant to producer Billy Mann, she met Bob Doyle, Garth Brooks’ manager, through mutual connections. “One day she came to me and said, ‘How do you learn your ABCs?’ And I said, ‘Well, I sang them,’” recalls Doyle. “She said, ‘My area of expertise is memory. The brain seems to retain and recall a hit song and any information connected with a good melody. What if you put a curriculum to music?’”
With Doyle onboard as a top investor and booster, Muzology recruited talent like Grammy-winning producer Andy Zulla and The Voice winner Chris Blue to write 25 songs in two months. Israel’s team set up studios at Airbnb locations in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville to knock out the first set of videos in days.
Most recently, in late April, Muzology enlisted its stable of talent to put together a rare nonmath song addressing the COVID-19 crisis: Four songwriters created “All Over the Map (The Coronavirus Song)” through FaceTime; then singers, guitarists (including Beyoncé’s bassist, Divinity Roxx) and their families shot footage of themselves on iPhones for the video. “If someone sick is next to you/They cough, spit, talk or go atchoo,” goes the colorful three-minute tune, “These are all the ways that you could get the sickness too.”
Israel, 44, may be an experimental psychologist, but she has the kind of upbeat, fast-talking charisma that’s key to music-business schmoozing. (She and Doyle worked the room at the Songwriters Hall of Fame gala last June.) Thanks to her book Brain Power for Kids, she has been traveling the world for media appearances since she was 13. The late Stephen Hawking was a close friend of hers — but so are singer-songwriter Jennifer Warnes and Pitbull. “She’ll never tell you any of this,” says Mike Strickland, founder of Nashville concert-lighting company Bandit Lites, who is not a Muzology investor but helps Israel make industry connections. “Her IQ’s like 5,847.”
After graduating from Oxford University in 2001, Israel — inspired by her piano-playing mother — moved to Manhattan a year later. Through her friendship with Doyle, she started a conversation with Brooks himself about data and analytics, predicting that his 2014 comeback tour would eclipse previous sales by 124%. “Well, after the first year, he’d done 125%,” recalls Doyle. “It made me a real believer — if you have accurate information, you can get predictive results.”
By chance, Doyle and Israel met Strickland one night at a Nashville steakhouse, and within an hour’s chat over appetizers he was sold on Israel’s idea for Muzology. Using Strickland’s connections, Israel and her producer-assistant pitched the program to Knoxville, Tenn., nonprofit think tank Great Schools Partnership. Soon after, the team started working with a University of Tennessee-Knoxville professor to test the program on underperforming local middle-school students. A 2015 trial found “heightened and sustained recall” among those who had viewed Muzology videos. With Great Schools funding adding to Doyle’s ongoing investment, Muzology rolled out another test, among 300 students in a summer-school pilot program. The kids who had seen the videos improved their math-quiz scores by an average of 126%. “We got statistically significant results,” says Israel. “The methodology worked.”
Muzology soon expanded to nearby school districts, first in Tennessee, then Arkansas, Florida and beyond. The video-heavy curriculum emphasizes pre-algebra, says Israel, because the subject is an “acute pain point” for students who are suddenly contending with letters in addition to numbers — and once they understand it, they tend to move on to more complicated subjects. With Muzology, kids can watch videos on functions, geometry, equations and ratios multiple times, taking comprehension quizzes before advancing to the next level.
The idea of teaching math through music videos isn’t new — Schoolhouse Rock helped students learn math, science and civics in the 1970s; artists from They Might Be Giants to Laurie Berkner have put out educational songs for years; and music remains a common tool in early-childhood learning. “But after about second grade, poof! It disappears,” says Israel, calling from her home in Nashville, where Muzology is based. “In common parlance, music lights up the brain. Neuroscientists don’t like to talk that way, but it’s a very good descriptor of what’s going on.”
In 2018, Muzology received a $225,000 National Science Foundation grant, and the program recently expanded to New York and California. Still, it isn’t yet widely known, and some math-education experts question whether it’s truly a magical cure-all for underperforming students. “I do tend to be very skeptical of approaches/products like these,” says Jon Star, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and psychologist who studies high-school and middle-school math learning. “There’s no question that mnemonics help us remember things, and music is a really powerful one — but are kids understanding the math or just remembering?”
Sandra Calvert, a Georgetown University professor and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, has studied Schoolhouse Rock videos and found that kids memorize the words but not necessarily the concept. (A child in one of her team’s studies, after watching the famous “I’m Just a Bill,” defined a bill not as a piece of congressional legislation but “something that you pay.”) “The information is always available and you’re going to hear it over and over,“ she says. “But then the thing is, can you get from that to kids solving actual mathematical problems?” But she adds that Muzology “certainly looks promising” and allows that songs and videos may encourage kids to work harder on math because “it’s popping up in their heads and they’re thinking about it.”
So far, teachers using the videos made by Israel’s team are indeed noticing that effect. “I had a young lady who would not do her work,” says Christina Nuchols, a math teacher at Knoxville’s Whittle Springs Middle School. “After Muzology, that student was walking up and down the hallway singing about order of operations. It seems silly, but the silly is what they remember.”