Background Music with Homework? Part 2 -Stress, emotions and music.

A continuation from Background Music with Homework? Part 1.

Last time, we discussed music as being an art form with a unique capacity to evoke an emotional response. Not only can music awaken our emotional self, but through its emotive powers, music can help us to discover new and glorious aspects of our self. How important are emotions?

Many people listen to music for stress relief. Stress is the perception that a given challenge is greater than the abilities we possess. This perception might not be real or accurate.


We all fight with negative thoughts from time to time; disappointments from the past but mostly concern regarding our future performance. To put this in perspective I invite students to recall times when they were stressed about a test but achieved better-than-expected results. Students then realise that stress can be self-induced.

Man is disturbed not by things but by the views he takes of them. – Epictetus

The attitude we bring to a challenge determines whether stress will have a positive or a negative bearing on our performance. Imagine two golfers are facing the same shot. The aim is to strike the ball straight down the middle of the fairway. On the left is an out-of-bounds fence, which adds pressure to the shot. One golfer thinks in terms of negative outcomes. Do not hit it left; it is out of bounds and will incur a penalty. It will ruin my score if I hit the ball left. Do not hit it left. This focus on negative outcomes usually brings about one of two negative results. The first is the self-fulfilling prophecy: it is likely the golfer will hit the ball left, as this is a focus of his thoughts. Second, the shot might go in the other direction, far to the right of the target area. In psychology this is known as overcompensation. The other golfer, however, sends his brain a different message and a singular one. This golfer observes the fence on the left but thinking I will hit the ball down the middle of the fairway. Focusing on a positive outcome will more likely deliver a positive result. Stress is useful if we can harness it to narrow attention on successful outcomes, but destructive if it leads to a focus onto negative outcomes. Stressful situations are such that the same amount of pressure will wilt one person and invigorate another. Losers visualise the penalties of failure and potential humiliation; winners visualise the rewards of success and welcome the accompanying learning experience. Stress impedes concentration and is an enemy of memory. It tends to make the emotional limbic part of the brain, which controls our ‘fight or flight’ responses, dominant. Physical responses to stress include an increase in pulse rate (which for a musician can cause the tempo of a piece of music to increase), body temperature (which results in sweating), and blood pressure; a dry mouth; shortness of breath; and tension in the form of muscle contraction.

When the rational mind is under stress it is swamped by emotion. It is impossible to fully separate emotion from intellectual processes. For one thing the brain has more connections going from the (emotional) limbic system to the (intellectual) neo-cortex than vice versa. This might indicate that emotion influences decision and action more so than rational thought. Therefore, effective decision-making requires a good degree of EQ. Emotions drive attention, meaning, and memory. Suppression of emotions, which results in repressed emotional build-up, is unhealthy.

The little emotions are the captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it. – Vincent Van Gogh

Music presents an emotional encounter through the medium of sound. Music evokes emotion and emotion affects physiological change. Consequently music has the power to change us not only mentally but also physically.

In my next post I’ll discuss how music is used within society to manipulate emotions and the body. This is evident particularly in marketing, sports psychology, and music therapy- medicine. I think you’ll find this post very interesting.

What you have read in this  blog series thus far, along with what’s to follow 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.

“Terrific…eminently practical…excellent discussion…I came away inspired and excited, and I heartily recommend it.” – Inge Southcott, The Music Trust, Australia.

“This book really does deliver…a great resource on a piano pedagogy list…wonderful support for the teacher.” – Dr L. Scott Donald for American Music Teacher.

“A deeply impressive work, the breadth of research is fascinating! It is Griffin’s combination of his many years of practical experience as a music educator and consultant, with his broad overview of research and primary sources that makes this book so valuable and unique. A combination of big-picture theories and ideas with immediately practical strategies and examples.”

front cover final

“Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ brings together recent developments in learning psychology and cognitive neuroscience and presents them in a very readable and engaging format. The strength of Griffin’s discussion lies in his clear explanations of the terminology as well as practical ways in which teachers can foster highly motivated, self-driven learners in both the classroom and private studio. This is a fascinating book, deserving of a wide readership. It provides clearly written explanations of a number of important developments in psychology and neuroscience, and articulates the benefits of music learning with convincing clarity. It’s a book to share with parents and senior students for the insights it provides on the benefits of sustained effort and perseverance –a message that can’t be heard often enough in our fast-paced, distracted, sound-byte-driven, contemporary society. Highly recommended.” – Dianne James, October, 2014 for Ritmico, New Zealand.

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

Amazon UK
Kindle US
Kindle UK
Australia: Contact for direct mail.

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

BookCoverPreview Bk 2

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

BookCover VR

‘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

harmony bk cover

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
One comment on “Background Music with Homework? Part 2 -Stress, emotions and music.
  1. Yet again, I am so impressed that I made notes in my ‘Life book’!

    Thank you Mr. Griffin.

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