Mr. Charles Yarwood
Music is a defining presence in our world. It’s prevalent in every culture we’ve ever studied, it’s essential to our movies and TV shows; it constitutes a $130 billion dollar industry, and it has many other roles in our day-to-day life. The effects and potential music holds is not well understood, and what we do understand is misrepresented.
I personally love music; I play several instruments, and you can almost always find me listening to music. In school, listening to music is understandably condoned. The point of school is to learn, often times by spoken word, but the prevalence of portable music and headphones has forced teachers to work around this potential obstacle. It’s fairly commonplace to see students listening to music in the halls, during work time, and during tests. I interviewed several CVU staff members and reached out to students at surrounding schools to find out what their thoughts were on listening to music and if other schools in the state had similarly lax policies as CVU does on listening to music during school. I then conducted my own research to see what might be discovered about scientific findings on the effects of music on learning and cognition.
CVU employs a policy around music that lets teachers to decide if allowing students to listen to music would be conducive to learning and test-taking. I interviewed 35 CVU teachers across all departments about their class rules about listening to music during independent work time and test taking, in addition to what effects they observe when students listen to music. In the independent work part of the survey, 62.9% of teachers report that they let their students select their own music to listen to, 17.1% play music on classroom speakers, but don’t allow students to listen to their personal music; and 20% don’t allow music of any kind. In the testing section of the survey, 28.6% of teachers allow students to select their own music, with 71.4% of teachers not allowing music of any kind.
Teachers report a wide range of effects of music on students, which lead them to their decisions on allowing or disallowing music. The Teachers that allowed music during work time cite reasons such as it helping students focus by blocking out classroom noise, relax students, gives them a choice, making them feel like their opinions are valid; relieve stress, and boost creativity. The teachers who don’t allow music during work time cite reasons of having to use a smartphone, which leads to texting and other distractions; selecting the “right” song takes too long, music getting played too loudly, students missing something due to music, making the music a social event by sharing earbuds, and watching music videos instead of working. The teachers that allowed their students to listen to music while they take tests cited similar reasons as to when they work: better focus, stress relief, and relaxation during the anxiety-ridden testing periods. There are seventeen teachers who allow music during work time but not during tests; there are three major reasons for this. The first reason is concerns over academic honesty. When a student is “choosing a song” the teachers can’t be sure their students aren’t looking up answers. The second reason is some of the teachers teach AP classes, and music isn’t allowed on AP tests. The teachers want to create as similar an environment to the actual AP test as possible, so music isn’t allowed. The third reason is some teachers allow music during work time to help students focus by blocking out other noise in the classroom. During tests there isn’t extraneous noise to be blocked out so music isn’t a necessity.
CVU is known to be very liberal and open with its policies, so the policy that allows teachers to decide if music can be allowed or not is almost expected. I decided to ask students from other schools if they have any policy on listening to music. I asked students at Burlington High School, South Burlington High School, Essex High School, Mount Mansfield Union High School, Middlebury High School, Montpelier High School, U-32 High School, and Rice Memorial High School. Every school except for Middlebury and Rice had a similar policy to CVU. At Middlebury, the policy is one of no music, but my sources told me that this isn’t always enforced. At Rice, there is a strict no-phone policy that includes iPods and MP3 players. This policy excludes seniors, but only during study hall.
There is some scientific research on the effects of music on learning and cognition. The most famous study done is by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky (1993) that investigated the effects of Mozart on infant’s spatial reasoning abilities. There was an improvement in the babies’ spatial reasoning abilities, but this was blown out of proportion with what was dubbed “The Mozart Effect.” Many news organizations said that listening to Mozart made babies smarter, which was never tested for in the study. Other studies have been done to investigate the effects of music on cognition and memory, which will be the focus of the information relayed here. The studies focused on arithmetic and language comprehension (where the language was the subject’s first language). In a study performed in 2013 by Arielle S. Dolegui, it was shown that arithmetic was best performed in silence. When music was played, scores did not vary when “loud” music (such as rock) or “soft” music (such as classical) were played. Scores were lower in both types of music if the intensity (volume) of the music was higher. In another study performed by Simon P. Banbury, et al.
In 2001, it was shown that scores on a similar arithmetic test were lower than music or silence if there was background noise such as human speech or construction sounds. In a separate study done by E. Glenn Schellenberg and Michael W. Weiss in 2013, it was shown that students performing an arithmetic test performed the test faster when they listened to music, but also made more mistakes than their counterparts who performed the test in silence. When these results are put together, it can be reasonably determined that performance on arithmetic work will be sped up listening to music, but accuracy may be compromised. If there is background noise, it may be advisable to listen to music so that background noise is drowned out.
Many students listen to music while doing something other than math homework. Many classes require reading and students will listen to music there. All studies performed have led to the result that comprehension and memory will decline when listening to music while reading. In a 2010 study by Stacey A. Anderson and Simon B. Fuller, it was shown that there was no significant difference between comprehension when rock or classical music was listened to, but there was a higher short-term memory retention rate when classical music was listened to. All studies again showed that background noise was worse for comprehension and memory than music, but silence was still shown to be the best in these categories.
We all know music isn’t going anywhere. Friedrich Nietzsche said “Without music, life would be a mistake.” One of our cultural pillars and greatest joys is music, but we still don’t know all that much about what it does to us outside of make us dance and sing along. The human brain is still largely a mystery, especially the parts that process language and music. The attitude around CVU seems to be one of acceptance to music, which is likely only going to grow. There needs to be more research done to reveal insights on the effects of music on memory, cognition, and learning to fully understand how we should study and work, but for now, I’m going to listen to my favorites and do my math homework.