Few things have the ability to have as big an impact on an individual’s emotional state of mind as music. That’s why loud rock music is commonly used by the army and intelligence services to interrogate prisoners and it’s also why doctor’s surgeries, hospitals and dental practices pump classical music into waiting rooms to relax patients.
So, should teachers use the mood-altering power of music in lessons by playing it in the background at every given opportunity?
Some studies have found that playing music to children has a lot of upsides. For instance, in September this year, clinical psychologist Dr Emma Gray published research – which was admittedly conducted in conjunction with music streaming service Spotify – that appeared to suggest that students were more likely to perform well academically if they listened to music while studying.
Other academics, however, argue that a link between music and learning is complete tosh. They suggest the data is inconclusive, with one anonymously commenting that, so far, the research has been “a mess”.
Currently, then, there is not a conclusive answer either way on the merits of background music in schools. Many teachers, however, are convinced it can improve outcomes.
One such evangelist is Jane Manzone, a primary teacher in Camden, north London. She started out playing classical music during registration and, after noticing the positive impact that it was having on the students, she decided to introduce it into her lessons.
“It calms and focuses them,” says Manzone. “I would never play it during maths, but if the children are doing extended writing or art it seems to work really well. It’s particularly effective if you can find a piece of music that matches what you’re doing. For instance, if you’re doing Halloween artwork and you played the Danse Macabre I think that would lead to more creative work.”
Another advocate is Stephanie Keenan, curriculum leader for English and literacy at Ruislip High School in London, who says that music can also be a really useful teaching tool by sparking impromptu analysis.
“We can analyse lyrics, exploring what makes a song a song and a poem a poem; what creates emotion – the lyrics or the music? – and how musicians use poetic devices such as simile and metaphor in their lyrics,” she explains.
In the mix
Are these benefits equally as prominent no matter what genre of music? It appears not.
Manzone swears by classical music and has even introduced a weekly feature to educate her students on different classical composers, while Keenan says that “old” music that pupils don’t know the words to can be very effective.
Physics teacher Simon Porter adds that certain genres may need to be avoided.
“For my practical sessions, I tend to use cool jazz – Miles Davis, for example – or fairly light classical baroque like Goldberg variations,” says Porter. “I’m an AC/DC fan myself, but I can’t really think of an occasion when that would help a lesson…”
Indeed, the age appropriateness of a piece of music is another vital consideration that teachers who are considering using music in the classroom need to make. Some music is obviously for older audiences, but teachers need to be wary of the sometimes darker side of seemingly innocent sounding pop songs, says Kieran Dhunna-Halliwell, a teacher, educational writer and consultant.
“My class used to love Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass, but I did wonder whether it was a positive example to be playing to my Year 5/6 girls,” she says. “It can be difficult to navigate because songs the children request are songs they’ve heard elsewhere within society or familial lives and there are ethical judgements that need to be made sometimes.”
So while your Year 7 student may well blast out Miley Cyrus’ BB Talk at home with the full permission of their family, that does not mean that you should necessarily assume it is OK to play the song in school.
How loud should the (hopefully appropriate) music be? Hamish Arnold, a teacher at Waulud Primary School in London, says that the best approach is to vary the volume depending on what you’re trying to achieve through playing the music.
“For instance, during guided reading I tend to have the volume quite low as the children are expected to be very quiet, but for an art lesson I might have the volume high enough for it to be heard over the background chatter to help keep the atmosphere calm,” he says.
The opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to volume control would be to let children use their own smartphone, tablet or MP3 player in class so that they can listen to their own music.
Ken Halla, a US teacher and author of the book Deeper Learning Through Technology: using the cloud to individualize instruction, embraced the idea of allowing students to listen to their own music after noticing that his own children regularly played music while studying, yet this wasn’t having a negative impact on their grades.
“About four years ago, when smartphones were first proliferating in our school, some of my students asked if they could work while listening to music,” recalls Halla. “Since I like hands on assignments – with me acting as the facilitator – I was game. Almost immediately, I noticed the kids calming down and getting more serious.”
Music to the ears
To ensure that students remain engaged during Halla’s lessons, no one is allowed to leave their ear buds in when he’s talking. “Teachers do need to be wary of students who will try to half listen when a teacher is talking by leaving one earbud in and one out. That will not work,” cautions Halla.
Of course, some teachers will say any music at all in lessons won’t work and with the research failing to come to a conclusion either way, that is a fair argument to make. But Professor Susan Hallam, who is based at the UCL Institute of Education, says that a lack of concrete evidence on the impact of music on learning specifically should not stop teachers using music in the classroom. Instead, she says that teachers should adopt a balanced approach.
“Broadly speaking, calming music of whatever form will calm people down and loud, fast music makes people more lively and arouses the brain,” says Hallam. “However, it’s a complex picture. You can use music to change children’s arousal levels and impact on behaviour, but you shouldn’t use it all the time. Sometimes no music is as good as playing calming music.”
Or play a little John Cage, and you are, in theory, doing both.