Using music in the classroom

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Listening to music can improve concentration and productivity, so is it a good idea to play music in the classroom? If so, what kind is the most effective? Dr Nicola Davies investigates.

The Creative Alpha State

According to Ludwig van Beethoven, “music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents”. Research has since shown what Beethoven knew intuitively – that alpha brain waves are necessary to be creative and one of the best ways to attain the alpha state is through the correct use of music. Therefore, educators who use music to enhance learning are tapping into the creative abilities of their students.

The alpha state is attained when brainwaves are operating at a frequency of between 8 to 12 hertz, when a person is effortlessly alert and relaxed – a state that enables learning to take place. The beta state of 13 to 40 hertz is the frequency the brain generates during normal daily activities. The delta state occurs during deep sleep, and the theta during meditation and deep sleep – states that shouldn’t be occurring in the classroom!

The best music to play to attain this alpha state is classical or instrumental music. Music that is harmonious or has consonance is the most effective for inducing this state.

Once learners have experienced some lessons with this music playing in the background, they often start to appreciate it – despite previous resistance. 

Jeanie Beales, English teacher at an all-girls school, said: “I have learners coming up to me afterwards asking where they can get access to the instrumental music I have played. This is after informing me vehemently at the beginning of the lesson that they don’t ‘do’ classical.” 

The Mozart effect

When soothing music is played, it effectively cuts out other white noise and allows learners to focus on the task at hand. The effect of playing Mozart to learners has come to be known as the “Mozart effect” as it has a calming impact, allowing learners to complete tasks significantly faster than when dissonant music is played – or even when there is complete silence. 

Dissonance occurs when the note combination isn’t “correct” according to the key the music is written in. It creates a chaotic and rather frantic sound – Shostakovich is an example of a composer who used dissonance. This type of music doesn’t help in reaching an alpha state.

“Like anything that affects the learning environment, music needs consideration,” explained Kevin Hewitsen, director of Advocating Creativity in Education, an organisation based on fun being the essential element of lifelong learning. 

He continued: “Music can be used to good effect when starting a themed art project, in creative writing and other instances where you want students to become actively engaged in the process of creativity. A background of the appropriate music can be a great way of muting chatter yet providing an encouraging environment.

“I experiment quite a bit with music, even for school leadership team meetings. It is surprising what effect music has on people as they enter a room. Some music (Baroque, for example) can have an excellent impact in calming the energy, other genres in raising it. Much depends on what you are trying to achieve.” 

Educators are well aware of the post-lunch break siesta syndrome, when trying to get learners to co-operate is difficult. Energising music that encourages a state of alertness while working on projects can go some way to negating this problem. 

In addition, music can create the soundtrack to a lesson – for example, a lesson on Baroque paintings or sculptures could have Baroque music playing. This allows learners to associate the characteristics of the music with the art being studied.

“A particularly successful round of English oral presentations involved learners picking a song and then analysing the words and the feelings they evoked, as well as doing some research into the singer’s experiences relating to the song,” explained Ms Beales. 

“Of course, songs had to be run by the teacher first for appropriate content and quality. This enabled learners to put poetry analysis techniques to work on contemporary music that they connected with.”

Rhythm, rhyme and rap can be used with younger and older learners in order to remember facts and place them in the correct order. It is especially useful in foreign language teaching for younger students to gain vocabulary, paired with actions and pictures. 

Ms Beales continued: “I was lecturing at a Zulu College of Education in South Africa where we were training primary school teachers. They particularly enjoyed the music of the ‘Brave brave mouse who went marching through the house’ and would even sing it, loudly, in the corridors.”

The ‘Silence Between’

About 230-odd years ago, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart said: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” 

It would appear that his opinions have been authenticated by research conducted at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. The research team, led by Vinod Menon, professor of psychiatry and behavioural science, looked at how the brain reacts during the pauses between one movement and the next in a symphony. They did this by putting their subjects through a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan while listening to symphonies by William Boyce, a late Baroque composer, chosen specifically because of the intervals in his music.

It was established that the transition period between music movements – what Mozart referred to as the “silence between” – as well as the few seconds preceding and anteceding the transition, was processed by two neural networks. Activity levels in both the left and right sides of the brain during the transitions showed that the right brain, which controls the artistic and creative skills, was significantly more active. 

Co-author of the study, Jonathan Berger, a musician and associate professor of music, says that music engages the brain and the way we listen to music allows the brain to brush up on its ability to sustain attention and anticipate events. By anticipating events, he was referring to the way we make sense of the input reaching our brains and sort it out – ready to absorb the next round of information, which is exactly what educators want to be happening in a lesson.

It would seem there is agreement that music can benefit learning, however the type of music played in order to reinforce learning is crucial. Choices need to be very selective in order to optimise the cognitive benefits that both students and teachers can reap.

Music and homework

When it comes to homework and study time, learners should be encouraged to choose harmonious music rather than, for instance, heavy metal. The music needs to form a background to the activity rather than becoming a focus. Learners will often waste time selecting particular songs instead of having a playlist that can continue while they work. Well-chosen music can help to pass the time faster and stop learners focusing on whether they need a snack or toilet break, as they are likely to do if they become bored. If learners are serious about acing their studies through using music, teachers can help them create playlists of suitable music that they can select from when doing their homework.

  • Dr Nicola Davies is a consultant psychologist and freelance writer.


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