Should students (or anyone) listen to music in class (or at work)?

Kids are coming back to school this week.
We’re looking to really focus time on making sure that when we intervene, it’s for either giving feedback, helping with questions concerns, or guiding them to try different approaches.


What we DON’T want to do is to police their technology usage.


The question of music came up and for us at a middle school faculty meeting. Personally, in the past, I’ve been pretty open with letting kids use music as long as their headphones are in – but, we need to come to a consensus in the middle school about how we are going to talk to them about this and what message we want to give them. We want to be consistent and also create an atmosphere that is clear, concise and promotes learning, hopefully backed by research, neuroscience or psychology.


So, I did some preliminary research (and by research I mean looking at the first page of google headlines on articles, so no actual “reading”) on this that suggested music is detrimental to learning. Anyways, I decided to actually read the articles that claimed to have scholarly research… I hit the search bar, made sure that I was looking at results within the last year – you know, because research changes (and opposing research is fun to find!) and I want to be somewhat current… Also, the way I worded my first search phrase “is music detrimental to learning” while the second search I did was “what effect does music have on work?” got me quite different results. So, that in itself is interesting – but getting to the point is that in short, it all depends on a variety of factors.


Here are the there distilled points I personally got from this investigation.


  1. Music that’s engaging is inversely proportional to concentration. Meaning the more engaging it is, the worse it is for concentration. Then again, that concentration is only for cognitively complex tasks. People performing more rote tasks tend to do really well while listening to music and it will actually increase your productivity. Generally speaking, of course. Studies, yes multiple ones, found that silence is best for tasks involving higher order thinking.
  2. Then there was the study undertaken by researchers from Cornell University, that showed group cooperation increases while listening to music. So, this is not music in headphones, but upbeat music that all the “workers” listen to. They played upbeat songs to workers, compared to unpleasant songs (also, that’s totally biased on the researchers points of view – they called “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Walking on Sunshine” upbeat, while naming heavy metal as unpleasant – not all agree with this, of course) and the group contributions were one-third higher in the upbeat songs scenario. As an aside, the group contributions were determined by an experiment known as “Voluntary Contribution Mechanism”. Here’s the original article I read on this topic.
  3. People will do whatever they want to do. Half the people writing these articles (Actually probably more than that – maybe there’s a research portion of this that I haven’t explored yet) were actually listening to music while writing these posts. They said, I’ll quote one of them “I, personally, don’t do anything without listening to music. So, while writing this blog post, I have been listening to soothing background music.” That being said, it really does depend on the situation, mode and environment. Like one study said, “lower-than-average dopamine levels in the brains of people with ADHD means they might need a bit more noise from the external environment in order to steady their concentration skills”.


So, looking at all of these, I believe that as a middle school we made the right call. Here’s what we decided:


Students will not listen to music via headphones, unless they have a note (from doctor, teacher) saying otherwise. Students may listen to music as a whole class as determined by the teacher.

Adnan Iftekhar