Mood music

27th April 2007 at 01:00
How Dolly Parton, Glen Miller and Mozart are creating the right atmosphere in school corridors and playgrounds. Stephen Manning reports

Ah, the sounds of the school corridor, who could forget? The chattering and shrieking, the lunchtime bell, a football smashing a window, a teacher calling out "stop running", the whale noises, the chirruping of crickets, Annie's Song by John Denver.

Wait, this isn't quite as I remember it. But this is how it is at a school in north-east England that trialled the idea of piping music and other sounds in the corridors and dining hall to induce calm and enhance the school environment.

Pupils at St Mary's Roman Catholic Comprehensive in Longbenton, Tyne and Wear, recently took part in a 12-week project. They were treated to a range of music, or rather "tailored soundscapes", from light classical to gentle pop and ambient sounds, but all characterised by smooth notes and calm tones.

Despite the odd grumble about the music being "not my genre", the majority of the pupils, when questioned, agreed that they felt better. The teachers also reported a 20-minute improvement in dining hall clear-up time. The music went down well, though the ambient sounds of nature - birdsong or whale noises - were less successful, perhaps because the acoustics were not quite right. Mike Potts, the school's head of citizenship and PSHE, says:

"It wasn't about controlling rowdy behaviour but about creating a more pleasant environment. It made the dining hall more adult, like a canteen."

Pupils chose the music for the second half of the trial. Some offered their own creations, like garage tracks, but these were too frenetic. "They discovered that the genre they liked was not necessarily the music that would enhance or calm their mood," says Brenda Soars, a psychologist who ran the project.

Brenda has previously worked in retail, tailoring soundscapes to motivate staff and tempt customers. But she doesn't see this as the same as "supermarket music". "This is an easy, cost-effective way to change the environment of a school for the better, especially ones that might need rebuilding but won't get the money for years."

St Mary's pupils were already familiar with the approach - the school is next door to a metro station that plays classical music. Indeed, Brenda was brought into the school by Nexus, which runs the Tyne and Wear metro service. In 1997, Nexus was the first company in the UK to introduce piped music into railway stations to discourage loitering youths, but there has not been a study of how music affects the mood of a group of children until now.

"Musick has charms to sooth a savage breast", William Congreve wrote in The Mourning Bride, his 1697 play. But is it really the music that makes the difference, or just difference itself? Nigel Rodgers, the founder of Pipedown, the campaign against piped music in public spaces, can see problems with it. "If you're trying to change behaviour, it would be at best a short-term palliative," he says. "It's like a scarecrow - children will get used to it, and the farmer will have to keep changing it."

He is also concerned that the use of music as an "acoustic tranquillizer"

undermines the potential for children to develop musically. But some primary schools have been using music like this for a long time.

Carr Hill Primary, an inner city school in Gateshead, has used calming music throughout the day for years. The pupils are greeted in the morning by soothing clarinet sounds of Stranger On the Shore by Acker Bilk and each day ends with Run For Home, the Lindisfarne 1970s soft rock classic.

Of the 325 pupils, 41 per cent are on the special needs register. Callum Kidd, headteacher, says: "A lot of the kids are from challenging circumstances, their lives might not have the structure that they should.

We try to create an atmosphere that reduces stress and music is a major part. For example, if children turn up late, they might be stressed about being in trouble, so music will reduce that. We don't encourage lateness, but it's often not the child's fault."

Anything from classical Indian music to a Dolly Parton song such as Little Sparrow can be heard from the speakers. There are also "visual stimuli" in the main stairwell, a laptop projects images from recent school trips, accompanied by Spanish guitar music.

Callum believes that this approach not only reduces "low-level aggro", but also that pupils will not be exposed to this range of music anywhere else.

Other heads agree. On a sunny day the corridors of Priory School, a primary with more than 750 pupils in Burnham, near Slough, might be swinging to In the Mood by Glenn Miller.

If it's windy and the pupils need calming down, it will be Mozart. But does the use of music as an "acoustic tranquillizer" undermine the potential for children to develop musically? Adele McNally, the school's assistant head and early years leader, thinks not. "It's about affecting the mood for the better, but also exposing children to different kinds of music, which they are not likely to come across otherwise."

Music undeniably affects people, but measuring this is difficult. Anne Savan, a science teacher at Aberdare Boys' Comprehensive, Aberdare, Mid Glamorgan, is one of the few to try.

She was an early advocate of the Mozart effect, not the widely discredited idea that listening to Mozart improves intelligence, rather that it can improve concentration in hyperactive children.

This stemmed from work she did in 1997 with her Year 7 science class, who had a variety of medical, behavioural and psychological problems. Anne found that playing Mozart pieces, such as his clarinet concerto, dramatically improved their concentration when performing tasks. She measured the pupils' body temperature and blood pressure before, during and after the lesson, every day for five months, concluding that they were significantly less hyperactive when the music was playing.

Puzzlingly, only Mozart had this impact, and only his orchestral compositions, not choral nor anything with piano or other keyboards. Anne completed a PhD on the effect of background music on children with special needs, especially behaviour. But her work seems to be unique in terms of evaluated evidence.

Ray MacDonald, a psychologist at Glasgow Caledonian University, specialising in music therapy, says studies have shown that hearing your favourite music can change your perception of pain. But, he says: "The main factor is preference - music you already like." So is it only Mozart or classical music that is good for schools: "Underlying this, is the assumption that something such as Mozart is good for you, and in the absence of any real evidence, it's received wisdom - Mozart being the epitome of learning and taste," says Ray.

Certainly, there have been interesting attempts to put something like that into practice. Morley High School in Leeds, for example, has for several years placed persistent troublemakers in an isolation booth. In January, it experimented by playing classical music in the booth. But this was quickly abandoned - because it annoyed the teachers

What calms kids down?

Air from Handel's Water Music

Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly

The Swan by Saint-Saens

Nocturne in C sharp minor by Chopin

Imagine by John Lennon

Annie's Song by John Denver

Fields Of Gold by Sting

Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel

Contemporary chill-out tracks by artists such as Air and Zero 7

Source: St Mary's Roman Catholic comprehensive, Longbenton, Tyne and Wear

What not?

Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter by Iron Maiden

Firestarter by The Prodigy

Another Brick In The Wall by Pink Floyd

Anything that goes: thump-thump

roaring lions

startled geese

road drills

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