Sadly, listening to music in the classroom using the latest portable media players has become a distraction for my students. I’ve always believed that for some students listening to music in the classroom while they do seat work helps them focus on the task at hand. I’ve written about it here, here and here. The idea being that the music my students listen to will create a type of white noise for them that will drown out distracting noises in the classroom like pencils dropping or other students talking. Unfortunately,  listening to music on the new portable media players does not reduce distractions and help students focus on their work. On the contrary, the new more sophisticated portable media players have introduced a host of new distractions that lure students away from the task at hand.  For example, students who have an ipod touch , can and do  surf the web in class, send email, play games, update their Facebook status and text one another as well as listen to music. Less sophisticated portable media players like the ipod shuffle that only play music seem not to be as distracting, but many of my students prefer to use players that let them do more, let them do it all- surf the web, text, play games etc.  In September, I’m only allowing my students to use media players that only play music.  I found that these players worked well in the past to help my students stay on task.

Let me just say here that I am well aware of the controversy surrounding the claim that listening to music in the classroom helps students better concentrate on their work. More research definitely needs to be done.  I can only go by what I see happening in my classrooms.  I see students who get distracted easily in class focus better on their work when listening to music.  I see students do more work when they listen to music. I agree with  Mathew (see post comments) who noted

I’m willing to concede that music does not increase concentration. However, I know that when I have a task to do that I don’t want to do (like cleaning my desk, correcting papers, doing the dishes, etc.) music can wake me up and help me to work faster.

When my students are bored or unmotivated, I find that sometimes music wakes them up and gets them to work for short periods of time.

I too have students who at times are bored and unmotivated- imagine that :). For example, not all my students have a passion for algebra. If listening to music while completing their algebra assignments helps make algebra bearable and they stay on track and complete the algebra assignments, then I’m all for listening to music while doing algebra. I’d rather they complete their assignments than not complete their assignments. If however, my students become  distracted from completing their assignments because  their media players enable them to do all kinds of other things they prefer over algebra like surfing the web, texting, or playing games then I’m all for banning those  devices from my classroom. I want listening to music to help students complete their work. I don’t want the devices students use to listen to music to introduce more distractions into the classroom.

photo thanks to amyvdh

The controversy about the benefits of listening to music in the classroom continues.  In an earlier post, I argued that listening to music helps students better concentrate on the task at hand.  I have been encouraging  my students who have  difficulty maintaining their focus in class because they have attentional deficits to listen to music while they work on their assignments.  Why?  The music they listen to acts like white noise to drown out many of the distractions caused by such things as a pencil dropping to the floor, someone in class sneezing etc. Some students have  difficulty ignoring the multitude of minor distractions that occur in a busy classroom.  The music they listen to distracts them from the distractions, if you will,  so their attention isn’t darting all over the place as each new sound occurs. I hope I’m making sense here. The point being that when students listen to music while working they aren’t as easily distracted by other sounds and can better focus on the task at hand.

I haven’t done any scholarly  research to support my contention that listening to music helps students with challenges like attention deficit hyperactive disorder focus on the task at hand. I’m basing my contention on the experience I’ve had for more than years supporting students who have attentional difficulties.  Listening to music helps some students retain their focus.

GB, one of  the readers of an earlier post of mine about the benefits of listening to music,  made me aware ( see the comment she left)  of an article that discusses the benefits of listening to music. The article concluded  ” listening to music unfortunately won’t increase your concentration”.

I can just hear all the groans from those students who tell me they are writing persuasive essays and looking for evidence to support the practice of listening to music in the classroom to help them concentrate.

The author of the  article discusses the current research on the effect of music on concentration with personality types as an independent variable. It does not follow that since listening to music does not help introverts or extroverts concentrate, listening to music would not help students with attentional difficulties concentrate. The independent variables are different. I know of no study that has attentional difficulties as the independent variable. If someone is aware of such a study, please let me know. I’d really appreciate it.

Photo thanks to e-magic

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I think I can safely say that we know from personal experience that music affects our bodies and our minds. Listening to music relaxes us, energizes us, comfort us, keeps us company, help us celebrated and even helps marks special occasions. I think I can also safely say that we know the music we like to listen to at any given time varies from person to person and situation to situation. Sometimes I like to listen to Jazz, sometimes I like to listen to The Blues and other times want to to listen to Baroque or even Country Music. It all depends on the situation, how I’m feeling and what I’m doing.

I thought I could safely say that listening to music in the classroom helps students be more productive, so I did say that in several posts that I wrote here, some dating back to September 23, 2006. There’s so much interest in this topic. It’s a really hot topic on my blog. Everyday people visit my blog to read what I’ve said about the effects of listening to music in the classroom. In fact, at this very moment as I write this post I see that someone from Englewood Ohio, someone from San Fransisco,California, someone from Hampton Virginia and someone from Augusta, Maine has dropped in to check out what I’ve said on the topic. Why all this interest? I guess now that MP3 players have come down in price so much making them more affordable, more students are bringing them to the classroom wanting to listen to their favourite music while they work on their lessons, and teachers and parents are wondering if it’s OK to let students listen to music while doing their school work.

I’ve gotten lots of feedback, and I’d like to thank people for that. How else will I know what people think, if they don’t tell me. So please keep telling me. I’ve had students tell me that listening to music helps them work. I’ve had teachers tell me that when they let their students listen to music in the classroom, the students work better. That feedback supports my experience in the classroom. It’s a good thing that people take the time to leave comments and ask questions because I also got feedback from people who say that they can’t listen to music and do their work at the same time. The music distracts them. Now, I wouldn’t have known this because I like listening to music when I work. I’ve also been asked if I had scientific research to support the contention that music facilitates learning. I’ve had to say no that I didn’t actually have scientific research to support this, just my own experience.

Given the request for scientific research to back my contention, and given the fact that listening to music in the classroom is such a hot topic, a controversial one at that, I thought that I would see what the research said. Now, I have to say up front that my search was not an exhaustive one. With all due respect, this isn’t a master’s thesis. It’s just my blog, and I’m telling you the way I see it from my vantage point of a classroom teacher. But, I was interested enough to spend several hours seeing what I could find. I did find some research that supports my contention that music facilitates learning, especially the learning of students who manifest the ADHD type symptoms of having difficulty staying focused on the task at hand, of being easily distracted, of fidgeting excessively, or having to get up frequently and move about.That was exciting. I see these behaviours in my classroom all the time. I even behave like that some times. I can’t sit for long without fidgeting or getting up out of my seat. I’m terrible when I go to the movies or to theatre. I’m forever squirming about while other people sit still as a stone. I don’t know how they do it. I have to move. I guess I’m blessed with twitchy muscles or something.

Ok, back to the research. I came across a paper by Daniel Reitz and Dr. Partricia Chiodo (May 4, 2006). They cites studies done by F. F. Cripe (1986) , L. Morton, J. Keshner and L. Seigel 1990) that conclude that music has a beneficial effect on students

music with a prominent beat stimulates an increased arousal in students which overrides the effect of environmental distractors…repetitive beat produces a reduction in muscle tension, thus reducing hyperactivity… (there was) significant reduction in distractability among students after being exposed to music. Short term memory was also beneficially affected by having to listened to music

Although Reitz and Chiodo conclude that listening to music promotes academic success , they suggest that further research is needed as these conclusions were based on the results from a study of a small number students and surveys completed by students themselves.

Nina Jackson In her article “Music and the MInd” suggests that although more research needs to be done, we can be cautiously optimistic about the potential benefits of listening to music to motivate students, improve concentration and study skills. She supports the use of music in the classroom. In fact, she calls music the new teaching tool for the 21st century. I guess her point is that any thing that’s as powerful as music, should be used to help students. She says

Music plays with your state of mind as the electrical energy generated by firing neurons creates brain waves. The music a person chooses to listen to can influence the waves’ frequency, and their state of mind. It’s not only the mind that is influenced by music, the body also responds. Musical messages travel down the spinal cord, impacting the autonomous nervous system that regulates the heart rate, blood pressure, muscular activity, metabolism, and other vital functions…

Energizing music can make your brain exercise longer and harder. It increases speed and workload capacity … music with a strong steady beat can increase endurance, boost effort level, increase motivation and distract from discomfort and agitation.

Boost effort, increase motivation and distract from comfort and agitation? That’s what I want for my students. That’s what will help them learn.

I guess Jackson who is Head of Music at a school in South Wales would see the effect of music on students all the time and would have far more anecdotal evidence than I do to support the positive effects of listening to music while learning. Although she suggests specific pieces of music to listen to for specific results, I usually just let student choose their own music. The only thing I suggest is that they listen to music that they’re very familiar with. I read this recommendation once many years ago. I’m sorry I don’t remember where or I’d share the source with you. Supposedly, listening to very familiar music isn’t distracting because you know it so well.

Now in closing, let me say this: Given the limited amount of scientific research there is about the benefits of listening to music in the classroom, I guess the most I should say about the whole thing is that I’m cautiously optimistic. But, my non scientific day to day experience with students and music in the classroom doesn’t make me want to be cautiously optimistic. It wants me to be wildly optimistic. I know that some people can’t work listening to music. They’ve told me that much. That’s OK. So here’s what I propose. Until more research is done and either proves or disproves that music facilitates learning, let’s let students decide if music helps them learn or not. They know. They can tell you. Just ask. If they think it does, then let’s encourage them to listen to music while working. If they think music doesn’t, then let’s let them pass on listening to music. We’re always looking for ways to motivate student, to engage students so if music is the way let’s go for it.

Here are some other articles I wrote on music in the classroom that you might find interesting

Listening to Music Helps Students Be More Productive in The Classroom

The music in the classroom debate continues

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