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Can listening to background music improve children's behaviour and performance in mathematics?

Dr Susan Hallam and John Price
Institute of Education, University of London.

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference
(September 11-14 1997: University of York)


Historically, there have been many claims regarding the beneficial effects of music on behaviour and development but there has been little empirical work to verify them. Two studies are reported here, the first in a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, the second with year 6, main stream primary children. There was a significant improvement in the behaviour of the EBD children when background music was playing. Observers also noted improved co-operation and a reduction in aggression in the lessons immediately following the intervention. Significant improvement in mathematics performance was found for all the children.


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 (in press) 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 assess if the introduction of background music will improve performance in mathematics in two educational settings, a school for emotional and behavioural difficulties and a mainstream primary school.

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 inclusion of any individual piece of music in the experiment was that it should be interpreted as calming by the majority of the respondents.

A standard Sony camcorder was mounted on a tripod in the corner of the classroom to record each experimental session. A booklet of arithmetic problems within the child's level of achievement was prepared for each child. The music was played on a good quality cassette player.


The design of the study was counterbalanced with each pupil acting as his/her own control. The first four trials were completed without background music, followed by four trials with background music. After a gap of one week the procedure was repeated in reverse order for three trial under each condition (See Table 1).

Table 1

Phase one                              Phase two                               

Without music      With music          With music          Without music       

T1 T2 T3 T4        T5 T6 T7 T8         T1 T2 T3            T4 T5 T6            

The trials took place at the same time each day immediately after lunch. To counteract the effects of practice and boredom with the task, the arithmetic task was changed for phase two. The new problems remained within each child's level of competence.


Before each session the pupils were requested to sit quietly and complete as many maths problems correctly as possible in a given time span. They were asked not to speak to the other children or move around the room. If a teacher's help was required they were asked to raise their hand and wait until they were asked to speak.

The pupils were reminded of the rules at regular intervals. If one of the pupils broke a rule they would initially be given a reminder e.g. 'You are expected to sit quietly' or 'You are expected to remain in your seat'. If the behaviour was so extreme or persistent that it gave the remainder of the group little realistic chance of settling to their tasks then the pupil would be told that they would be asked to leave the room if they continued. If the pupil was removed from the room then their scores for that session were omitted.

For each session two measures were recorded; the number of correctly completed maths problems and the number of times rules were broken (10 second interval sampling).

Rule breaking behaviour consisted of:

* addressing a teacher without first raising a hand and waiting to be spoken to

* any comments to other children

* leaving seat without first gaining permission

* hitting or making threatening gestures

* making excessive noise non-verbally (e.g banging something)

The explicit criteria as outlined above enabled observers to be trained easily and led to very high levels of inter-rater reliability. The video sequences were analysed by three observers, all teachers at the school. They were allocated pupils to observe for each session. In every second session a cross observation was conducted as a simple running check of observer reliability.


The main findings for individual pupils are summarised in Figures 1 and 2. The mean score for mathematics performance with background music was 38.5 (SD 15.1) and without background music 21.5 (SD 8.91). A repeated measures t-test revealed that the differences were significant at the .002 level (t= -4.7, df = 8).

Figure 1

Maths performance with and without background music

In relation to rule breaking the mean scores were 17.3 ( SD 6.07) for background music and 21.2 (SD 6.09) without background music. This finding was not significantly different (t = 1.9, df = 8, p = .09). Examination of the data revealed that the initial session of the first trial was largely responsible for the lack of difference, this being the time when the pupils were adjusting to having background music. With this initial session taken out of the analysis a paired t-test revealed a significant difference between the two conditions at the .001 level (t=4.89, df = 8), with significantly fewer instances of rule breaking when background music was present.

Correlations carried out between the number of completed maths problems and the number of rule breaking incidents revealed a significant negative association, r = -.47, p = .036. This negative association suggests that the improvement in mathematics performance, in part, was related to the improvement in behaviour, which itself seemed to be related to the influence of the music.

Figure 2

Rule breaking with and without background music

Further analysis, comparing individual sessions in each trial, revealed that in 4 out of the 7 sessions there was a significant positive affect on mathematics performance when background music was used. Even where the differences were non-significant the effects of the music were always positive. The background music at no time had a detrimental effect on performance. The differences in behaviour were much less marked, although it was only in the very first session using music where there was a negative effect on behaviour over the whole group of children. In 3 out of 7 sessions there was an improvement in behaviour with background music and in 3 there was no significant difference. This suggests that, after the initial settling down session, there were no negative effects on either behaviour or performance with background music playing.

Overall, the findings suggest that the performance and behaviour of emotionally disturbed children within the special school classroom may be enhanced by the introduction of background music. On the basis of these findings it was decided to undertake a similar study in a mainstream primary school to establish if the effects could be replicated with children without Special Educational Needs.

Study 2


The pupils

31 children took part in the study. They were aged 10 to 11 in year 6 in a junior school in the London area. They were randomly allocated to two groups. The teacher reported that in maths lessons they were normally quiet and industrious. They had also had some previous experience of working with background music in creative subjects.


To ensure continuity with the previous study the same music was used. The class teacher selected the arithmetic problems to be undertaken to consolidate work already covered in the syllabus and to be within each pupil's level of competence. The problems all concerned fractions.


The mathematics sessions took place during the first lesson of each day on four consecutive days. For the first fifteen minutes of each period, Group B (no music) completed their arithmetic work in one area of the room. This was followed by general mathematics work. During this time Group A worked on general mathematics tasks. Later in the session, group A (music), completed their arithmetic work for 15 minutes while group B continued with general mathematics. This pattern was repeated over the four sessions with the order alternated so that no group had a practice advantage. The pupils were instructed to work independently on their arithmetic work without talking to other pupils and to sit quietly and complete correctly as many of the maths problems as possible in the fifteen minutes. If the pupil required teacher instruction to complete the work his/her score was discounted from the analysis. In each session, for each individual, the number of attempted maths problems, the number correctly completed and the accuracy rate was recorded.


An examination of the mean number of problems completed during the 15 minute session revealed that the mean for those listening to the background music was 34.9 (SD 7.7) problems and without background music 27.3 (SD 7.8). This difference was statistically significant (p = .02). When performance was considered for each day separately this pattern was repeated (see Table 2).

Table 2

Mean Number of Problems Completed with and without Music

             With music                 Without                                  

             Mean          Sd           Mean          SD           Significance  

Day 1        37.5          9.23         28            9.3          .007          

Day 2        32.5          12.6         24.8          10.7         .05           

Day 3        33.8          7.8          28.4          6.1          .026          

Day 4        36.4          7.9          29            11.43        .03           

Figure 3

Number of problems attempted with or without background music

When the number of correct problems was considered the overall mean with background music was 27.8 (SD = 7.5) and without background music 23.5 (SD = 2.8). This was not statistically significant (p = 0.12). However there was some variability within the sessions (see Table 3).

Table 3

Mean number of problems solved correctly with and without music

             With music                 Without                                  

             Mean          SD           Mean          SD           Significance  

Day 1        28.8          10.2         19.7          8.1          .01           

Day 2        22.7          12           19.9          10.3         NS            

Day 3        26.6          11.4         25.8          6            NS            

Day 4        29.3          7.2          24.4          11.5         NS            

Figure 4

Mean number of problems completed correctly with and without background music

A percentage accuracy level was established by taking the number of correct responses and dividing them by the number of attempted responses. The percentage accuracy rate with background music was 84% and without background music 80%. This difference was not statistically significant (see Table 4). However, there was a significant difference in the variance of the two sets of scores. With background music the standard deviation was 12.7, without background music it was 5.57 (p = .025). There was considerable individual variation in the level of accuracy when music was being played.

Table 4

Percentage Accuracy Level with and without Music

             With music                 Without                                  

             Mean          SD           Mean          SD           Significance  

Day 1        76.9          18.3         73.8          14           NS            

Day 2        71.9          25.1         79            16.5         NS            

Day 3        77.4          21.57        90            5.9          NS            

Day 4        81.4          15.5         80.7          12.7         NS            

Figure 5

Accuracy rate with and without music

This small study demonstrates that background music can enhance the speed of working on mathematics problems. As a result of this the students tend to get more problems correct but their overall accuracy level is not improved.


The findings from these studies suggest that performance on solving maths problems is affected by having music playing in the background. All of the children with emotional and behavioural difficulties performed better on the maths task when background music was present, although the extent of the effects varied between pupils. The pupils who benefitted most were those whose difficulties were associated with constant stimulus seeking and overactivity, closely resembling the 'hyperactive' syndrome (pupils 3, 6, 8 and 9). These pupils were disruptive but not perceived to be suffering from any deep emotional trauma. The background music may have served as sufficient stimulus to satisfy their stimulus hunger whilst not interfering with their ability to concentrate on the task. While the music did not appear to change their rule breaking behaviour they were more often talking while working rather than talking instead of working. Perhaps stimulus replacement rather than stimulus reduction is effective in helping children with such difficulties.

The pupils for whom the background music had least effect (1, 2, 5 and 10) were all reported by the school staff to have deep seated emotional problems stemming from an acknowledged history of abuse, both physical and emotional, separation and loss. The behaviour of these children was described as driven by internal emotional states being unpredictable and difficult to manage. These children did show improved performance with the background music, although the effects were less marked. Perhaps the changes in their performance occurred as a result of the reduction in distractions from the other pupils who were concentrating better.

The findings in relation to rule breaking are less clear. This may be due to limitations in the assessment of rule breaking. To facilitate ease of identification and recording, and high inter-rater reliability, the scoring system was simple. This meant qualitative variation in rule breaking was not recorded. For instance, if children were observed talking this was counted as rule breaking even if the nature of the interaction varied from mutual praise to belligerent abuse. A more sophisticated analysis might have taken this into account. The constraints of the recording equipment and the difficulties of training observers made this impossible. However, the observers did note a decrease in hostility when the background music was present, with children tending to show off the number of problems they had completed and attempting to help others rather than denigrating performance and swapping insults. The observers, also teachers, commented on the greater degree of co-operation observed following sessions with background music present, with children offering to collect pencils, rearrange chairs, etc. While this has not been substantiated empirically in this study, Fried and Berkowitz (1979) found that university students who had listened to calming music were significantly more helpful afterwards than those listening to aversive, stimulating or no music.

The study with the children from mainstream education also revealed improved performance when listening to music. This seemed to be due largely to an increase in work rate. In only one session was there any evidence of an improvement in the number of correct answers and there was no difference in the percentage accuracy of the two groups. The music seemed to facilitate an increased rate of working suggesting that its effect related to maintaining an optimal level of arousal as specified in the Yerkes Dodson law. The large variation in accuracy in those pupils working with music playing in the background suggests considerable individual diversity in the impact of the music. This individual variability may be related to personality factors, i.e. levels of introversion/extroversion, the relative difficulty of the task for each child, or levels of anxiety. Oaksford et al. (1996) have also suggested that positive mood states reduce performance on tasks requiring cognitive reasoning. The variability in accuracy scores might therefore be explained by the music inducing a "cheerful" state of mind in some children whose cognitive reasoning is then affected negatively.

Together, these studies demonstrate that playing background music, which pupils themselves have rated as "relaxing", has positive effects on pupils' performance on mathematics problems. These effects are in evidence for children aged 10-11 years in mainstream school and for children in a school for emotional and behavioural difficulties. The reasons for the effects may be different for each group. Music may exert effects on arousal and mood or provide a source of distraction which ultimately facilitates resumed concentration on the task. The effects may be different for individual pupils and may also depend on the nature of the task undertaken.


These studies suggest that:

* the introduction of background music of a 'calming' nature into the classroom significantly improved the performance of a group of emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children on a maths task and led to a significant decrease in rule breaking behaviour over the period of the study;

* the introduction of 'calming' music had the greatest effect on those children whose behaviour could be described as hyperactive.

* the introduction of calming background music produced an increased rate of work on mathematics problems in children in year 6 of mainstream primary school. There was no significant difference in the accuracy rate of those who worked with and without music;

* although there was an overall improvement when background music was playing there appeared to be considerable individual variation;

* the means by which the music achieves these effects may be multifaceted.


Fried, R & Berkowitz, L. (1979) Music hath charms....... and can influence helpfulness. Journal of Applied Social Science, 9, 199-208.

Gaston, E.T. (Ed) (1968) Music in Therapy. New York: MacMillan

Giles, M. (1991) A little background music, please. Special Children, 51.

Hall, J. (1952) The effect of background music on the reading comprehension of 278 eighth and ninth grade students. Journal of Educational Research, 45, 451-458.

Merriam, A.P. (1964) The Anthropology of Music. Northwestern University Press.

Oaksford, M., Morris, F., Grainger, B. & Williams, J.M.G. (1996) Mood reasoning and central executive processes, Journal of experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory and Cognition, 22(2), 477-493.

Radocy, R.E. & Boyle, J.D. (1988) Psychological Foundations of Musical Behaviour Springfield, Illinois: Charles Thomas

Savan, A. ( in press) A study of the effect of background music on the behaviour and physiological responses of children with special educational needs. Education Review

Scott, T. (1970) The use of music to reduce hyperactivity in children, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 4, 677-680.

This document was added to the Education-line database 04 February 1998