Is silence really golden..?

Since schools closed and my working world got much quieter I consider one of the greatest pleasures in my new routine is to listen to music all day.  Although it is a distraction for me…there’s the song-shuffle…the memory-jolts…the inclination to do a little desk-dance! All of this is a head-turn away from work and in to the world of daydreams and reminiscing – so I have been considering the disadvantages of listening to music whilst trying to concentrate on work and this is what I have learned…

“I live my daydreams in music…” Albert Einstein

In a recent T&L Briefing I was extoling the virtues of Ross McGill’s sound-bite examples of verbal feedback (they are very interesting listening indeed) and in the background I can hear the music that he is playing in his classroom.  It’s just about audible above the productive and busy learning atmosphere that you can hear and the students discussing their work with their teacher – it’s idyllic and exactly the learning environment you’d hope to achieve each day!

But does listening to music hinder learning?

Our school has a no-headphones policy (for all the sensible reasons you would expect) and our students are not permitted to zone-out and listen to their own music in school and they are often not very happy about this!  The beneficial reasons for bending this rule that our students usually offer up include:

  • it helps me to concentrate
  • I do more work
  • it stops me from chatting
  • I don’t get distracted

And of course we say:

  • it’s a health and safety issue
  • you need to be able to hear my instructions
  • you are learning new and complex information
  • you should not be using your phone in school

I know that Ross McGill is a DT teacher and so I have bothered our Creative Arts team with questions about music in their classrooms and this is what I learned:  they’re all at it! I have often slid in to the back of a Creative Arts classroom and the atmosphere is always amazing…there is a sense of purposeful calm.  Our students are at their most creative and therefore more forthcoming in their desire to share and discuss their works in progress…and in the backdrop there is very often some carefully selected music.  Now, we’re not talking Katy Perry sing-along-pop or the heavy vibrations of some Drum and Bass variety but instead some soothing background Jazz.  Even our headteacher gets the tunes out when she’s in her classroom!

But what does the research say?

A study conducted at Cardiff Metropolitan University found:

  • Students who revised in quiet environments performed more than 60% better in an exam than their peers who revised while listening to music that had lyrics
  • Students who revised while listening to music without lyrics did better than those who had revised to music with lyrics
  • It made no difference if students revised while listening to songs they liked or disliked – both led to a reduction in their test performance
  • Students who revised in silence accurately predicted that they would achieve better results in subsequent tests.

“Music comes to me more readily than words” Ludwig Van Beethoven  

I am an advocate for listening to music in most situations because it can lift a mood and it can motivate and it can inspire but it does make sense to me that listening to music does not help people learn new skills (unless the skill is to learn the Beyoncé moves to ‘Single Ladies’..!) and this is confirmed by a series of studies linked to the ‘Mozart Effect’ which found that students performed better in a series of cognitive tests if they listened to 10 minutes of Mozart. However, further research found that really the only benefit was listening to music before a task because it can lift mood and spirits but listening to it whilst trying to learn something new does not help at all.  This is because music (especially music with lyrics or music that evokes a strong emotional reaction either happy or sad) takes up processing space in the brain and therefore creates a conflict with the new information that a student is trying to learn.

“Nobody seems to worry about the kids listening to thousands of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss…” Nick Hornby   

So what does this mean for the classroom?

It’s time to get the Jazz out!  Immersing students in an atmosphere that promotes quiet talk in a volume lower than the music playing will not only promote productivity it will improve their mood and enhance their cultural capital – win win!

N.B.  Have I been listening to music whilst writing this blog…of course not! Do you know what happens to English teachers if they make even one tiny spelling error! I’ve been concentrating whilst Spotify’s Top 90s playlist waits moodily in the corner for me to finish!

Published by Natalie Reed

Assistant Headteacher - Teaching & Learning

3 thoughts on “Is silence really golden..?

  1. Music has always played a huge part in my life and as Curriculum Leader for Creative Arts and DT I too have witnessed the quiet, calm, concentration music brings to a classroom. However, I also believe there is a place for silence, where students are encouraged to listen to the ‘music’ of nature around them – a technique I use with relaxation exercises in drama. I urge you to try music in your classroom – I am sure the results will surprise you.
    A very insightful blog Natalie – thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting debate! I am a fan of music in all settings but there is something to said for periods of silence…although the silence of my world currently does not make me smile – it makes me feel a sense of loss because I miss the noise and bluster of busy secondary school life!
    Thanks for the blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, as always, Natalie! Good food for thought.

    In MFL any music with lyrics in English is a hindrance to focus and therefore learning. The human brain sadly can only process one language at a time. Funnily enough, when hearing something in a different language that you do speak, if you are not tuned into that language, the message will elude you completely- it has happened to me more than once! 🙂
    I have tried playing electronic violin or Spanish guitar in the background on occasions- students liked it, it kept them relatively quieter, but it didn’t seem to help them focus on the task in hand, when the task involved writing/reading. It did work really well with more creative tasks, such as designing a X-mas card or something similar, so I think music would work really well in an art lesson, when students get on with a lengthier task.

    I LOVE using music for educational purposes! I have my go to songs for teaching various grammar issues: parts of the body, family, emotions, clothes, colours… A good song, with a worksheet focusing on the relevant vocabulary (fill in type of tasks mainly, but also find in the text words that mean/synonims)
    Thank you for the blog!


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