The film and game industries have known it forever: Music is a critical part of user experience, creating atmosphere, supporting memory, and cueing emotion. As a designer of learning experiences, are you using music as a strategic design element? Here are some ideas for adding it to your toolbox.

Influencing mood

Many designers use color in strategic ways: Think about stress management modules built largely with soothing greens and blues, or safety courses employing warm hues mimicking the colors of yellow signs, orange traffic cones, and red fire extinguishers. Music can similarly “color” a mood: Something slow in a minor key can cue somber content or suggest reflection, while happier, more upbeat music can send a message about hopefulness or confidence.


Most Americans of a certain age will remember the kids’ animated short films for TV, Schoolhouse Rock, with titles like “Conjunction Junction” and “Bill on Capitol Hill.” Or maybe you still need to sing the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in your head to remember what letter comes after “R.” Music is an anchor, helping to fix material in memory, and not just for children: Check out this music-as-mnemonic idea from ChinaX and this music video on acute asthma management. Think about your own work: Where might music support a learner remembering steps in a process or definitions of terminology?


Do you use music playlists? Have you ever noticed that after a while they can become mundane, even when they’re serving up songs you love? The predictability of it—once you’ve memorized the sequence—creates monotony. Notice the difference when you reset the playlist to shuffle; see how anticipating helps us focus, concentrate, and predict. Most of us have a sense of how music “works,” so that even with unfamiliar pieces we understand shifts and anticipate changes.

Encouraging motion

Have you ever noticed how much time we spend talking about moving our learners around? After all, the “next” button was invented about three minutes after eLearning itself was. We want learners to move from screen to screen, idea to idea, module to module. Or we may want them to “move” in the sense of taking action or making a change. Athletes use music to support, and increase, basic locomotion. Composers know that a march makes you want to, well, march. Think about where you might use music to help propel a learner forward.

Here’s an example of how music influences a sense of motion. The 2010 version of True Grit is in many ways a retelling, verbatim, of the 1969 film. The difference? The musical score. Let’s take a look at what different composers did with the same scene. Here we have Mattie Ross, bitten by a snake, being rushed to the doctor by Rooster Cogburn. The scenes are largely identical. Take a look at about 30 seconds of each clip (these links point to different moments in the same video) from True Grit (2010) and True Grit (1969). How does the music used in each change the sense of forward motion?

Warning: Not just wallpaper

The strategic addition of music can help transform a course into an immersive full-body experience. But I want to be clear: I’m not talking about overlaying some track like musical wallpaper over an entire course. (Just think, for instance, of the soporific effect Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—the first link in this article—would have across 65 screens!) Think about how you can use it to support memory, attention, motion, and mood, not just as decoration. And it won’t compensate for or overcome other design issues. As Articulate’s Tom Kuhlmann once said: “If the course is boring, adding background audio will only make it boring and danceable.”

Where to get music?

Browsing YouTube’s music library can be a great way to explore moods, genres, and formats like acoustic and electronic (see Some image libraries offer music clips, so check to see what you may already have available to use. Try Googling around for “royalty-free music clips” and “stock music,” and check out this post from Judy Katz (formerly Judy Unrein) for advice on acquiring music.

Also check here for a list of resources from the “Ukulele Learning” sessions offered at DevLearn Conference & Expo. The page includes links to research on music and learning, blog posts from other practitioners, and the playlist we use in the presentation.

Accessibility? Be sure to include descriptive captions for those who may have trouble hearing. And per Virginia Disability Services Agencies: “Screen reader users depend on audio descriptions to provide additional information about important visual content displayed within a video. For instance, in a chase scene where the only audio is a piece of music, it is essential that audio descriptions are used to describe the actual events, e.g., ‘Two thieves run down a flight of stairs to escape the police.’ It would not be possible for blind screen reader users to determine this is what is being displayed on the video by listening to the audio alone.”