Study after study has scrutinized the theories that music can help or hinder productivity of the listener. We asked Santa Maria High School students what they thought was the case, the results were revealing. In the graph below the views of the students are represented. The obvious interpretation: we really like our music. Any time, all the time. Even the small percentage of those who believe it might be a hindrance to their productivity.
What we know from past studies is that the actual evidence points in the direction of music being harmful to productivity, but there are other factors to take into serious consideration to make your informed decision. Whether the music being listened to contains lyrics or not, the volume and tempo of the music and lastly what task is being done all become effecting variables in the studies conducted. How? Let’s get to that.
In the case of lyrics versus no lyrics the short answer is that music without lyrics is easier to listen to while focusing on another task, especially those that require the use of the parts of the brain dominantly responsible for linguistic function and interpretation of auditory information. Processing the lyrics of a song while reading or writing is more difficult, because the same region of the brain is required for both of these tasks and if your main task is supposed to be one of the former, music does become a distraction. However, if the music is familiar enough to the point where all lyrics are recognized by the brain without having to be analyzed, the lyrics become ignored and are easier for the brain to pass by as background noise. In contrast, songs we haven’t heard before require more of our attention since our brain is experiencing new information that needs to be processed, including the lyrics if such are present. It was also found that across the board, for children and adults, testing scores improved when done in silence.
In a 2015 study led by Duna L. Strachan of the Masters of Arts in Education Action Research Papers, researchers found that both children and adults had significantly affected scoring on tests when the elements of their environment were changed in terms of the presence of background music. When instrumental, slow tempo background music was played the mood of a classroom improved, and with improvement of mood it was found that while more restless and fidgety, overall the students where more engaged and productive. So, music, in the right environment can be effective in helping to improve productivity and the conclusion that these results are best obtained with slow tempo music.
We’ve covered when it is best to listen to music in a learning environment and all conclusions point to that in most cases, it does not fit most of a high schooler’s needs. If you are writing an essay, taking a test or reading instructions, comprehension improves without the presence of music. However, slow tempo, non-lyrical music have been proven to improve overall mood in groups, meaning that activities that do not apply to the former listing can actually become more productive with the addition of music. Class discussion and activities such as art are some of these environments. In each case it is up to teacher if they wish to include music within their classrooms as well as gauging their student’s reactions. It is a very circumstantial situation and we also must remember that we are creatures of habit. Many teenagers listen to music at home to study, and this is a critical bit of information that I believe was missing from the studies used as evidence in this article. The main groups under observation were either non-adolescent or adults, therefore they are not part of the current generation that I know often rely on music to help focus on homework. This creates a dependency for some to need music to concentrate in their “study mood”.
In the case of using headphones in a classroom, it is often counterproductive, as most it causes isolation from ones peers if group activity is allowed. It can also become a distraction if a teacher is instructing during this time. What it comes down to is teacher policy. If a student is allowed to listen to their personal music in a classroom, the survey says they most likely will. Whether it is more harm than good is up to the student to decide.