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The effects of background music on learning, performance and behaviour

Sue Hallam and Anastasia Kotsopoulou, Institute of Education, University of London


The effect of music on the moods, emotions and behaviour of both individuals and groups has been noted throughout history. A number of writers have discussed the functions of music (e.g. Merriam, 1964; Gaston, 1968), while others have researched both the physiological and psychological effects (see Radocy & Boyle, 1988 for a review). As a result of this research music has come to be considered as lying on a continuum from highly stimulating and invigorating to soothing or calming (Gaston, 1968). There is certainly strong evidence from a variety of sources that people respond differently to stimulative and sedative music (Radocy and Boyle, 1988). However, within the field of education there have been few studies investigating the non-contingent use of music in influencing the behaviour and performance of children.

Hall (1952), exploring the possible uses of music in schools found that performance on reading comprehension tests was significantly improved when background music was playing. 58% of the 245 8th and 9th graders taking part in the study showed an increase in scores on the Nelson Silent Reading Tests. There were also ‘settling down periods’ at the beginning of the morning and afternoon sessions and a mid-afternoon fatigue period when music was of greatest assistance. Her study also suggested that the major portion of the aid given by background music was an increase in accuracy and that those students who were ‘below average in intelligence and achievement’ benefitted more from the presence of background music than those above average, suggesting that this could be because these students were more in need of an aid to concentration.

In a smaller scale study of four hyperactive pupils, Scott (1970) found that the introduction of background music into the classroom setting had a calming influence. Comparison of performance on an arithmetic task across four conditions, the normal classroom environment, the introduction of background music into the normal classroom, children sitting in three sided booths and children sitting in the booths with background music revealed that the children were most productive when background music was introduced into the normal classroom setting.

Recent research by Savan (1998) demonstrated improved behaviour and a greater concentration on school work when background music was played during the science lessons of 10 children with learning and emotional and behavioural difficulties. Savan hypothesised that many of their problems stemmed from poor physical co-ordination and that stimulation of the brain with sounds of particular frequencies could improve this. During each science lesson, the children, who attended a mainstream school, were played music by Mozart as this was believed to have a high level of sounds of the appropriate frequency. Savan hypothesised that this would stimulate the brain to produce a chemical, probably an endorphin, which would lower blood pressure. The effect of lowering blood pressure results in decreasing amounts of chemicals such as adrenalin and corticosteroids in the blood. By decreasing these chemicals, the whole body metabolism is lowered producing a “calming” effect. To assess the extent of physiological changes in the children measures of systolic and diastolic blood pressure, pulse rate and temperature were made before, during and after the lessons when the music was being played. All showed a significant decrease when background music was played, lending support to Savan’s hypothesis.

These studies suggest that the use of music in the classroom may be beneficial to pupils’ performance. Giles (1991) also suggests that most pupils function very well with music in the background and the right music at the right time can make them less stressed, more relaxed, happier and more productive. She found that the most effective music for improving children’s performance was what they liked, providing that it did not overly excite them.

The aims of the studies reported here are to explore whether background music affects learning, performance and behaviour.

Study 1

The pupils

The pupils were a group of children aged between 9 and 10 (8 boys and 2 girls) attending a day school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Most of the children were attending for 4 or 5 days each week. One child was attending for only 3 days each week. Observation of the group revealed a high frequency of disruptive behaviour such as tantrums, crying, destructive behaviour, overt verbal and physical aggression and general over activity. None of the children had any diagnosis of brain injury and all were reported to have IQS within normal limits.


The music for the study was selected from that suggested by Giles (1991) as ‘mood calming’. Specific pieces were chosen by playing short excerpts (60-90 seconds) to a group of 26 pupils attending a day school for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children. The pupils were asked to assess each piece of music on three dimensions happy/sad, calming/exciting, and like/dislike. The criterion for inclusio...

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