Michael Griffin

Background music in the classroom?

Michael Griffin article background music


Background music is used extensively throughout society, in marketing, sports psychology and medicine. It is used to reduce stress, create an illusion, manipulate perception, alter people’s emotional state, and to enhance well-being. What about background music in class?

There are two reasons teachers might experiment with background music in classrooms.

1. To improve classroom behaviour and atmosphere
2. To improve the quality and/or quantity of work

Appropriately chosen music can improve classroom behaviour and atmosphere, which in turn improves learning outcomes. As a general rule though, the more complex the learning task, the more distracting background music becomes. Most students like having background music in the classroom. Students report the following positive benefits of background music:

It shuts out distractions. I get immersed in my own world and become more productive.
It puts me in a positive frame of mind and a better mood. It gives me a general feeling of well-being.
It calms me before a large task and I stay focused for longer.
It makes time go by fast, it helps me work quicker.
It’s good for repetitive homework tasks
It helps me reflect
It helps my creativity (Einstein is well known for associating music and creativity)
It makes studying more enjoyable.

Knowing when to turn the music on or off will come with teacher experience, but there are some fundamental principles that apply when selecting background music for general school classrooms.

1. Do not let the students select the music. This is not about entertainment, but about establishing an environment to improve learning arousal.
2. Use instrumental music only. There are some exceptions such as Latin text in Renaissance choral. Students listen and even sing with lyrics, detracting from their cognitive attention. The most distracting background music is fast vocal music chosen and liked by the student. Refer back to point 1.
3. Volume must be low. The physiological and psychological effects of music listening occur whether or not people are deliberately attentive to it. Volume preference is highly individualistic, but people are less tolerant of loud music rather than soft music. The louder the music, the more distracting it becomes.
4. Volume level must be consistent. Most playlist compilations source tracks from several sources, so there is discrepancy in volume levels. Most computer based mp3 players such as iTunes have built in devices designed to condense dynamic variation. Shuffle the playlist to keep it fresh.
5. Expect a settling in period. The introduction of background music in classes requires a period of adjustment. Students might complain about the style of music, and also offer their preferences as a substitute. Most research on this subject has found an adjustment period of up to two weeks. Grumblings will subside and listeners will be comfortable with this new addition to the environment. Then the positive effects of music can work its magic in transforming the ambience in your classroom.

How is music chosen to achieve different goals? Music components impact learning mood. In particular, tonality, tempo, pitch and texture all play an important role in affecting our mood. Music of a major tonality is happier and more positive than minor music. Faster tempi raise the heartbeat and music with lyrics demand more cognitive processing resources. These musical constituents should determine playlist selections.

The most important factor is the choice of music, and this is where I can assist, having constructed an 8-hour playlist for schools. Contact me for more information, but please note a fee applies.

What do schools say about this playlist?

Michael, We are really enjoying the playlist. The children work better during writing time with the classical selections and the contemporary ones work really well for just general working atmosphere. Thanks a lot for the great resource. (Grade 5 teacher)

Michael, Your background music has made a big difference to the atmosphere in the classroom. Several other teachers here at the school are now trialling it in their classes. For my English classes it sets a very studious tone as the students start the lesson with a quiet comprehension activity. It plays throughout the lesson and is only occasionally noticeable ‘around’ the group activities. I suspect I might be playing the music too ‘audible’ but it is certainly barely there at times depending on the track. A couple of students have actually asked after certain pieces. (High School English teacher)

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M. Ed Studies, B.Ed.

A. Mus. A

Adelaide, South Australia



+61 (0) 420 481 844

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