Background Music with Homework? Part 1.

Next week I’m giving a lecture for schools in the UK titled ‘Study, Stress and Music’. I’ll be repeating this in Singapore the week after. ‘Study, Stress and Music’ is based on the knowledge that approximately 70% of school students listen to music whilst doing homework. How does listening to music impact the learning brain? In my view, this is essential understanding for all students and teachers. My interest in this topic grew when it became the focus for a Masters dissertation I completed in 2006.

Many people ask me the question “well, is listening to music good or bad for learning?” They want to cut to the chase – but it’s not that simple. Hence I’ll explain this over the next few blogs. When I ask groups of students (I typically present this to  student ages 15-19, and staff groups) whether or not they listen to music during homework, on average the indication is that about 70% do. The ratio for teachers is only slightly lower. Why do people use music as a study aid? Here are the most common replies:

It shuts out distractions

I get immersed in my own world and become more productive

It makes time go by fast

It helps me work quicker

It’s good for repetitive homework tasks

It puts me in a positive frame of mind and a better mood

It gives me a general feeling of well being

It calms me before a large task and I stay focused for longer (also energises).

It helps my creativity

It makes studying more enjoyable

Younger children, being less metacognitive are not always able to clearly explain reasons, and more likely to respond ‘I just like it’. What the above responses indicate is that for many students, there is a perception that music can enhance the quality of their work, or at least make the activity more enjoyable. The flip side – why do people not study with music – is simpler. Many people find background music distracting. Clearly, there is a difference in disposition that some people find music a distraction, whilst others do not. I will explain why later in this blog series. Incidentally, I also include a chapter to this subject in my book ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’.

A broader question to my audience is why do people listen to music at all? The number one response I receive is that music is listened to because of its capacity to effect the emotions. I like James Mursell’s description of music as “the emotional essence of an experience crystallized in tone”. Music is all mostly about its emotional impact. No other art form can elicit emotional reaction to the degree that music can. Stephen Handel explains why music is more emotive than visual art. “Listening is centripetal,” he says. “It pulls you into the world. Looking is centrifugal; it separates you from the world”. Music has the ability to enhance self-knowledge because of our unique emotional response to it. Just on this point for a moment, for this reason teachers should encourage children to listen to a wide variety of music. During adolescence children often listen to music that represents rebellion and experimentation. This is normal, but the adolescent heart is also capable of tenderness and gentleness, love and hope, and unbridled joy. When one engages in a range of musical listening experiences one discovers more glorious aspects of the self.

In my next post I’ll look at emotions and stress in relationship with music, leading to a more thorough understanding of if, when and how one might listen to music with homework.

This  blog series forms part of my special presentation to students and school staffs ‘Study, Stress and Music’.

‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin. Reviews below.

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American Music Teacher

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“Fantastic book, simply brilliant! – Ian Cooper, Norfolk, UK

“Don’t miss this opportunity!” – Mary George, USA

“Rarely do I come away feeling so inspired. Incredibly beneficial.” – Music Matters Blog

“A must buy for every music teacher and music student” – William Bruce, Teacher of Strings, UK.

“Deeply impressive, the breadth of research is fascinating!” – Robert Chamberlain, Team of Pianists and Monash University Piano Staff, Victoria Australia.

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“I have read your book and it has made an amazing difference in my teaching and in my studio.” Beth Cruickshank, Past President – Ontario Registered Music Teachers Association.

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Also by Michael Griffin


Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Fundamentals of Notation is a unit of work for general music middle school classes. Designed around the mastering of practical skills, it integrates theory, aural and history, and allows students to progress at their own rate. View Table of Contents.  “This has been a great buy; the books are just superb! Interesting topics with a wide range of pieces. Great content with clear progression of learning. Fascinating teaching philosophy! BRAVO!” -The Grieg Academy, London. Available at

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Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Let’s Get Creative! is the fun and creative extension to ‘Fundamentals of Notation’.

View Table of Contents. “We have been using your keyboard course and the results have been amazing!”  – St George College, Australia

Available at

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‘Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs’

Second edition. Bumblebee! is more than just a collection of 129 choir exercises and rounds. The author shares timeless wisdom to help you get your choir – primary or secondary – into shape.
View Table of Contents.

“Will prove useful for almost everyone”- Rhinegold Music Teacher Magazine.

“This is a great resource to add to one’s library of rehearsal tricks.”- Anacrusis, ACCC, Canada

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Modern Harmony Method: Fundamentals of Jazz and Popular Harmony (Third Edition, 2013) is a clear and well organised text suitable for students of arranging and composition, and for classically trained musicians wishing to grasp the beautiful logic of jazz harmony. Essential understandings include chord selection, voicing, symbols, circle of 4th progressions, extensions, suspensions and alterations. Included in the 107 pages are explanations, examples, exercises and solutions. The course can be started with students in year 9 and worked through to year 12 musicianship, composing and arranging.  Available at


Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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Posted in Emotional intelligence, Multiple Intelligence, Music Education, Music psychology
4 comments on “Background Music with Homework? Part 1.
  1. Tommi Himberg says:

    Thanks for the interesting posts! I was wondering, is the 70% figure from your thesis work or somewhere else? I’d be interested in the reference, and perhaps a link to the study. Thanks!

    • mdgriffin63 says:

      Hi Tommi I’ve seen a couple of figures in studies from between 65-75%. My work verifies this and I always ask my audience to indicate their position – and I keep getting about 70%. As for the study references, I’d have to do a search on my notes which isn’t possible at present. Sorry, but If I get to itI’ll let you know.

      • Tommi Himberg says:

        OK thanks! Yeah, it sounds about right. I often ask this in class and among music students (uni or adult learners in e.g. music therapy music psych classes) the proportion is often lower, about 50%, and many say they couldn’t even think of using background music when working, as the music would eventually suck all their attention from the work! This is understandable, as it can be difficult for an active musician to turn off the analytic listening engine they’ve spent so much time developing. 🙂

      • mdgriffin63 says:

        Tommi, the figure is definitely lower for musically educated people. I was referring to a random sample. I will be explaining why in Part 4 of this blog series, but in a nutshell I’ve identified 4 factors that determine one’s capacity to cope with background music during work. One of those is music education because the listening experience (now shifted somewhat to the brain LH) is different to the non-educated who experiences a more RH listening experience, therefore not competing with the comprehension centres of the brain.

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