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Music and Learning Environment

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Background to the Study

Music has traditionally been used for different purposes within societies over the history of human kind.  Some of the early uses of music include cultural roles such as maintaining individual’s cultures, social roles among others. On an individual level, music has been used to alter individual’s moods, for enjoyment, to energize individuals and as a tool for personal expression besides relaxation. Music has been known to cause both psychological and physiological changes in individuals (Hallam, 2000).

The increasing accessibility and use of music by individuals have led researchers to conduct research aimed at expanding our knowledge on the effects of both listening and learning music and determine ways of harnessing music in different life spheres. For instance, overall exposure to music is substantial especially among teenagers who regard music as especially important due to its perceived role in satisfying their emotional needs and portraying a particular image to the outside world (North et al 2000). Additionally, most studies undertaken while at home are either accompanied by TV playing music in the background.

One significant finding that has had a far reaching impact on how individuals perceive music is the discoveries from various researches indicating that music can play a significant role in improving academic performance. Most studies have concentrated in determining the role of music in spatial cognitive skills from preschool, middle school, high school and college students. The emphasis and interest in determining the effect on spatial skills is largely based on the importance placed on spatial skills in success in various highly sought careers such as engineering, surgery, archaeology among other professions and in influencing mathematical abilities (Heitland, 2000). Studies identifying the role of active learning of music have largely been the core of these studies. Active learning of music was identified to lead to improvement in individual’s intelligence especially on spatial and cognitive abilities. 

Yet, other researches have concentrated on the effect of a music environment in influencing the academic performance of students and the factors that contribute to such effects.  Music use as a background environment while learning, improves academic performance albeit with varied suggestions on how the music environment affects individual learning. Among these suggestions is that a music background improves the cognitive abilities of learners. Other research suggest that music acts as motivating factor, increases concentration, and relaxes leading to suggestion that only relaxing music should lead to improved performance through mediating effect of mood and arousal resulting to relaxation of the mind and motivation to learn (Hallam et al, 2002).

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However, little research has been conducted to identify the relationship between the effects of different types of music on the academic performance of students such as music background related to the subject matter. For instance, the question of how music backgrounds from each historical era would affect the academic performance in a subject such as World History. While majority of the studies in the role of music in academic attainment have largely indicated that a positive relationship exists between the academic attainment and existence of a music environment, there exists a need to probe whether similar effect exists where the type of music is related to the subject matter.

Research Objectives

Research Questions


Music and Academic Performance

Music plays a significant role in altering the environment thus having an effect on groups and individuals moods, behavior and emotions. Researcher’s interest has grown regarding how to harness music to improve academic performance. The focus of researchers has mostly concentrated on three aspects; whether active learning of music increases individuals spatial-cognitive abilities thus resulting to improved academic performance, whether learning while listening to music affects learning and consequent academic performance and whether listening to specific type of music before learning improves academic performance, in what is referred to as the “Mozart effect.”

Evidence on the role of music in enhancing academic performance was brought to the fore by Hall in 1952. Hall (1952), in exploring the possible uses of music conducted a study among 245 students in 8th and 9th grader, and found that the performance of students in Nelson Silent Reading comprehension test improved significantly where there was music playing in the background. Scott (1970) conducting similar studies but using case study method among four hyperactive children identified improved performance in arithmetic, when students were placed in a normal classroom environment with background music.

Other research by Savan demonstrated greater concentration and improved behavior and academic performance in Science among 10 children with behavioral, emotional and learning difficulties. In explaining the results, Savan hypothesized that poor learning among this group of students could be attributed to a poor physical coordination. 

Effect of Type of Music Background on the Academic Performance

There is enough evidence to suggest that different types of music would portend different impacts on the physiological response. For instance, Lorch et al (1994) found that there exists a differential impact on physiological response of infants to different types of music and the level of activities among children aged between 3 to 4 years. Studies by Scott (1970) indicated that relaxing background music had a calming effect on hyperactive children resulting to improved education performance. Savan (1998) also demonstrated that when Mozart was during a class of ten children, there was evident increase in concentration among children with behavioral, emotional and learning difficulties.  

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Other types of music have been found to result to impaired performance suggesting that not all types of music has a positive effect on the performance of tasks. In assessment of a reading test, Fogelson (1973) found out that performance of 8th graders was affected negatively by the playing of instrumental music from the version of Mantovanis show tunes. The music was especially detrimental to high achieving students compared to their lower achieving counterparts. Another study by Kiger (1989) found similar results indicating that the type of music influenced the performance of students. In the study, Kiger in his study of 15 year old found out that they scored lower in reading comprehension in Japan language, when the background music was high on information load than when the music was low on information load or when their was no music.

Other studies aimed at determining the effect of different types of background music on tasks that required memory use. Hendelson et al (1945) for instance sought to determine the effect of music in a test taking exercise in groups listening to opera, folk, symphonic music and rock and the researcher found out that either music had any significant effect on performance on tasks including language, spelling, mathematics and self concept ability scale.

Explanations for the effect of Music on academic outcome

In explaining her results, Hall suggested that the improvement in accuracy, which was more significant among below average students, was due to music serving as an aid to increasing concentration (Hall, 1952). Scott on the other hand in explaining the results of his study among children with emotional and behavioral difficulties asserted that music provides a calming effect to these children. Hallam and Price (1998) found similar results in another study of children with behavioral and emotional difficulties.

Savan (1998) suggested that introducing music of a certain frequency would improve the children’s physical coordination by lowering their blood pressure thereby resulting to a decrease in certain chemicals such as corticosteroids and adrenaline in the blood and consequently lowering the body’s metabolism and producing a calming effect. In measuring the children’s temperature, systolic and diastolic blood pressure and pulse rate during the lesson and after the lesson, Savan was able to lender support to his hypothesis.

The differences in results from various researches identifying the effects of music on different activities have been mostly unsystematic and inconclusive partly due to the fact that music can be processed in different ways (Hallam, 2001). This especially because despite evidence of general trends in response to relaxing or stimulating music, individual cognition may play a mediating role, for instance, an individual may associate some type of music with particular events or have a dislike for some genre. Still, the significant evidence on benefits of music in mediating successful learning has provided revolutionary ideas on how music can be inculcated in curriculum to play a successful role in enhancing positive academic outcomes

Hallam et al (2002) supported the assertion by Scott in a review of two studies. Hallam and his colleagues argued that earlier studies in on the effect of effects of background music were largely lacking in regard to theoretical frameworks, was frequently poorly conceptualized and mostly produced equivocal findings. The researchers identified research that showed that music that was perceived to be calming and relaxing had the most significant positive effect in regards to academic performance with music that was aggressive and unpleasant contributing to disruption of tasks and consequent poor performance (Hallam et al, 2002). Hallam et al further concluded that the studies provided evidence that, “effects of music on task performance are mediated by mood and arousal rather than affecting cognition directly (p. 110).

The explanation for the effect of background music on performance of tasks is mostly explained using the Yerkes-Dodson law. The law attempts to provide a framework within which effect of background music may be determined. The law presupposes that mood and arousal are the major determinants of the effects of music on learning. The law thus asserts that “arousal level of individual increases performance up to a certain level beyond which over-arousal leads to a deterioration in performance” (Hallam et al, 2002, p. 113). Further, the law adds that where tasks are complex or under learned, arousal levels become too great thereby affecting performance.

On the other hand, simple tasks require more arousal to maintain concentration. For this matter, stimulating music should result to increased arousal thereby improving arousal in simple tasks, while where the tasks are significantly complex, arousal may be too much leading to deterioration of performance (Hallam et al, 2002).Additionally, arousal is not only inconsistent on an individual but also depends on personality. Finally, Oaksford et al (1996) found out that positive emotions may have adverse effects on an individual’s performance in cognitive reasoning tasks.

The research proposed here attempts to establish the effect of music related to a particular subject; specifically music on different historical eras on the performance of high schools students in a world history class. In the study, students from Southern Alamaca High school will participate in a study aimed at determining the effect of historical music environment on academic performance in world history class. In the study, students will also respond to their reported levels of altruism to determine the possible effects of music of particular historical periods on their mood. 

Participants of the study are High school students from Southern Alamaca High School. Sample will include all students in the classes taking World History subject will be included in the study. The sample consists of 88% white and mostly middle class. Each teacher will teach two blocks with music and one block without.

A pre-test post-test research design will be used for the study. Students will be divided in two streams; classes taught with background music environment from different historical eras and a control group of classes without any music. A pre-test post test design is chosen due to its wide use in comparative studies. The research design will assist in tracking changes in performance between the study group and the control group. The study group will be taught with background music in various historical ears. The control group will study without music. Performances before and after the periods will be tabulated and analyzed to determine whether there are shifts in performance between different groups.  

Method of Data Collection

The survey instrument in the study would be designed to measure whether music background has an effect on learning and the performance of students in History subject among High school students from Southern Alamaca High school. A personal data sheet will be requested from the school indicating the performance of the students in different classes before introduction of music classes in one class and having in the other classes without music background. A personal data sheet will also be collected after introduction of the music background in one group and no music in the other group. Additionally, a survey instrument to identify mood of students will be given to the students.

Expected results

It is expected that music background should have a positive impact on History learning. This is based on the fact that a music background that does not cause extreme arousal may result to improved academic performance. Consequently, it is expected that the research will have a higher number of students in the classes that have a music background reporting higher scores due to an improvement in motivation and concentration compared to their counterparts in classes taught without music background. It is also expected that students from the study group will report more positive moods compared to students from the control groups.

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