The Effect of Music on Student Achievement

Identify a few key words or key phrases that could be used to tag your work – e.g. assessment, literacy, raising achievement:
Listening to music, music and concentration, music and attainment

Why did you decide to undertake this project? What was it designed to achieve/what issue were you looking to address?

Listening to music: the background
There exists a range of pre-conceived ideas about the effect of music on achievement, from teachers and students alike. Some believe the effect of listening to music while working is positive, while others believe it is negative; often, it seems that a person’s beliefs are founded in their own reaction to listening to music while working.

Indeed, research into the issue reflects this variety of beliefs and identifies a number of variables that affect what the impact of listening to music while working could be. These are outlined below, followed by a discussion.

Task enjoyment
Research finds that listening to music causes your brain to release the hormone dopamine, which gives you a feeling of pleasure. This can lead people to enjoy tasks more if they are listening to music at the same time (Levitin, 2008).

The need for silence
Not listening to music makes you more likely to recall information than listening to any music does (Dolegui 2013).

Blocking background noise
Cognitive ability is less impaired by background music than it is by background noise (coughing, talking, etc) (Dobbs et al. 2010).

Music genre and preference
Neither the genre of music or whether or not you like what you are listening to impact on your ability to recall information (Perham and Vizard, 2010).

Music with lyrics
Lyrics can have a negative impact on people’s ability to concentrate on cognitive tasks (Shih et al. 2012).

The results of these research studies, while not directly contradictory, provide teachers with a dilemma when trying to decide whether or not it is right for their students to listen to music while they work. If listening to music means that students enjoy tasks more, one would assume this would lead to increased engagement and effort and therefore a better level of achievement. On the other hand, if research shows that people are more able to recall information in silence, it would suggest that listening to music has a negative impact on student achievement and should be avoided.

This statement, however, assumes that it is actually possible to achieve silence in a classroom of 30 active young people, surrounded by corridors and playgrounds that may well be full of students with a different break or lunch time to those in the classroom. Is true silence ever actually an option? If not, then the findings of Dobbs et al. (2010) that ability is less impaired by listening to music than by the distractions of other background noise, would lead us to consider that listening to music should, after all, be an option.

Indeed, Perham and Vizard’s suggestion that a person’s ability to recall information is not affected by the genre of music they are listening to and whether or not they like it, could help teachers to mitigate the risk discovered by Shih et al. (2012) that music with lyrics can have a negative impact on people’s ability to concentrate. Perhaps the answer is to select the music that students listen to so that it is free of lyrics and steady enough to block out background noise while enjoyable enough to increase dopamine levels and encourage task engagement.

As a result, music genre was one of the strands of investigation in this study into the effect that listening to music has on student achievement. The second strand of investigation arose from the fact that most of the studies outlined above looked at tasks related to recalling information. In a classroom environment this is only a small part of what students are required to do and so this study also investigated whether the type of tasks that students undertake can vary the impact that listening to music has.

Write a brief summary of what you did during the implementation of this project

What do students think about listening to music?

The first phase of the research was a questionnaire sent out to students to complete during form time to investigate their attitudes towards listening to music. The most interesting results are provided below.


Perhaps not surprisingly, 95% of students said that they like to listen to music during lessons, either by selecting ‘yes’ or ‘sometimes’.


50% of students said that the effect that music has on their work depends on what type of music the teacher puts on. This appears to go against the findings of Perham and Vizard (2010) that music genre does not have an impact on people’s ability to recall information.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that students are often undertaking tasks that require different brain activity from recalling information.


Again, student responses here appear to go against the findings of Perham and Vizard (2010), who found that information recall was not impacted by whether or not people liked the music they were listening to.


The fact that students rated discussion activities as producing lower quality work while listening to music is perhaps not surprising because students may well find that having music on in the background while they talk makes it more difficult for them to hear each other. Teachers should note, however, that students were much more negative about the effect that music has on the quality of their work when the task involved reading and understanding texts. In addition, problem solving is rated quite low in comparison with the other tasks, suggesting that many students do not find that music helps them produce higher quality work. This idea is reflected in results from classroom studies when students attempted mental arithmetic while listening to music (discussed below).


Results here are perhaps not surprising, but given the findings of Shih et al. (2012) that listening to music with lyrics can have a negative impact on people’s ability to concentrate on cognitive tasks, it could be of concern that the most popular genres of music are all genres that have a strong focus on lyrics.

What impact does listening to music while working have in practice?
The next phase of the research project was to record students’ attainment levels while under a range of different conditions: not listening to music at all, listening to their own music in headphones, listening to Pop, listening to Dance and listening to Classical music. Although Classical music ranked quite low on the list of genres that students choose to listen to, a range of instrumental Classical pieces were used as part of the study in order to have a music option that did not contain lyrics.

The varying conditions were used within five different task types: understanding and analysing language; creative writing; Spanish reading; written explanation and evaluation; mental arithmetic. The first four of these were within class environments, the mental arithmetic was a five-minute mental maths challenge undertaken during form time.

This graph shows that, although students believe that Pop is the best genre of music to help them produce higher quality work, Classical music was actually the genre in practice that led to them producing the best quality work. Note though, the very small difference in percentage scores here; the difference between all five conditions within the study is extremely small, suggesting that the impact of listening to music while working may actually be very small.
This chart shows the scores of the five-minute mental maths activity, which was completed by Year 8 students. Here we can see that students achieved better results without listening to music. This finding is also reflected in the results of the student questionnaire (discussed above) that students were less likely to say that listening to music had a positive effect on problem solving tasks than they were for many other activities.

The mental maths activity is discussed separately because it was a five-minute activity undertaken during form time. The other activities were during lesson time in English, RE and Spanish lessons. For each of these activities, the condition that produced the best results and worst results is listed below:


In terms of discovering whether or not listening to music has an effect on student outcomes, the findings suggest that any effect it may have (whether positive or negative) is very small. Nonetheless, taken alongside the students’ own reflection on the impact music has on them and on the minor changes noted in the different conditions, it is possible to summarise the following findings from this study:

  • The effect of listening to music on attainment is dependent on what sort of task is being carried out so a blanket rule of allowing or banning listening to music is not appropriate.
    • Calculating/problem-solving tasks and written explanation and evaluation are better undertaken without music.
    • Other types of task appear to benefit from students listening to music, although students themselves believe that they are better at reading and understanding texts without music, even though the results of our own trial suggest otherwise.
  • The effect of listening to music on attainment is also dependent on the genre of music being listened to. While existing research indicates that music without lyrics is more successful, this was only replicated in our own study with a Creative writing task.

The amalgamated data of the questionnaire results and attainment tests enable us to reach the conclusions above, but they also highlight how much variation there is between individuals. Looking at the results from the student questionnaire and from the attainment tests at a granular level indicates that there is a wide variation in how students respond to listening to music. Some students find it has a positive impact regardless of what task they are undertaking and on which genre of music they are listening to. Other students, a minority, prefer never to listen to music while working, regardless of the task or genre. Between these two polar opposites there is a wide range of personal preferences: those for whom the genre of music is key, those for whom the type of task will dictate whether or not they find music helpful and, possibly (although this was not investigated within the questionnaire) those for whom it will simply depend on their mood at the time. It is important for teachers to know this and act on it: if we educate our students about how music can affect their work we will enable them to make informed decisions about when they listen to music and what kind of music they listen to.

Quick wins

  1. Don’t assume that students’ responses to music are the same as your own – everyone is different.
  2. Encourage students to select music that will help them work: music without lyrics or a heavy beat seems to work better. Some students might even find white noise (static or ocean sounds) helpful if the aim is simply to block out background noise.
  3. Avoid letting students listen to music for reading comprehension and calculating tasks.
  4. Don’t use music just to block out distractions: working in silence is a more effective way of achieving that.
  5. Instruct students to choose a playlist and stick to it to avoid wasting time changing tracks and do not allow students to share headphones, which can cause distractions.

Dobbs, S., Furnham, A., McClelland, A. (2010) The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 25 (2).
Dolegui, A. (2013) The Impact of Listening to Music on Cognitive Performance, Inquiries Journal Vol. 5 (9).
Levitin, Daniel J. (2008) This Is Your Brain On Music: Understanding a Human Obsession. London: Atlantic Books.
Perham, N. and Vizard, J. (2010) Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect? Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 25 (4).
Shih Y., Huang R., Chiang H. (2012) Background music: Effects on attention performance Work, Vol. 42 (4).

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