Background Music with Homework? Part 4: Music and Study

A continuation from Background Music with Homework? Part 3 -Music in Society, Part 2 -Stress, emotions and music and Part 1. To understand this post you should read these first. This is the final instalment.

In the previous blog I discussed some ways that music is used to manipulate our emotional and physical states to cause a behavioural effect. In particular, the use of music in marketing, sports  psychology and medicine were discussed.

study stress bannerExamples of the power of music and it’s use for manipulation are included in my talk ‘Study, Stress and Music’ which I presented to Year 11 students at United World College, Singapore, in January 2015. When I asked this groups of students who studied with background music, more than 80% indicated that they did. For their reasons, see Part 1 of this blog series. No doubt those of us who don’t study with background music find it to be distracting.

Why some people can and others can’t tolerate music with thinking is explainable, and is essentially dependant on four factors.

1. What you are doing (task complexity)

2. Your personality (based on extrovert/introvert continuum)

3. Your (music) education

4. The characteristics of the music played in the background

Let’s take these one at a time.

1. Task Complexity

Generally, music reduces the boredom of routine work but distracts during complex mental work. Even those who do study with music usually have a threshold dependant on task complexity. When the thinking becomes more demanding they either turn down or turn off the music.

2. Personality

Introverts require a lower intensity of external stimulation than do extroverts. Studies have shown that introverts perform better than extroverts in a silence condition, whereas the reverse is true in conditions of external stimulation, such as having the radio playing or the television on. Introverts are more self-regulatory with their choice of background music than extroverts and will change or even turn off the music depending on the task at hand. Extroverts prefer working in more social and arousing environments. Extroverts report less awareness of self-regulation, preferring rock styles, regardless of task complexity. Extrovert teenage boys are most at risk to choose poor study music.

3. Education

One’s level of music education is another factor. When an understanding of music gets to an academic and ‘declarative knowledge’ level, the listening experience becomes more left-hemisphere dominant and must compete for attention with the comprehension processors in that part of the brain. Consequently, music specialists such as teachers will cope less well than others when attempting to concentrate on a task while background music is playing. They listen to and analyse the music using vernacular.

4. Music characteristics

Volume preference is highly individualistic, but most people have less tolerance for loud music. The louder the music the more attention it demands, so the more distracting it becomes if one is trying to concentrate on a mental task. This is why most people prefer to relax with softer music. Music with sudden dynamic shifts elicits greater emotional responses than music with a narrow volume range. Good study music is emotionally calm.

Tempo. Fundamentally, faster music stimulates, and slower music calms. Faster music engages us in physical responses, including finger snapping, head nodding, foot-tapping, and dancing. Faster music can be more difficult to study to because, by definition, fast music requires the brain to process more musical events per second. Slow music might cause drowsiness. Music with a tempo slightly faster than the heartbeat works well for study purposes.

Tonality refers to the musical scale, or the set of notes on which the music is based. There are numerous scales in world music, but the Western major and minor scales are the most common. These scales are usually identified by a ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ tone. For example, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ is in a major key, while a funeral march would be in a minor key. Most children can discern this aspect of music by the age of about six. Generally, major key pieces are more suitable for study music because of their ‘happy’ tone. However, some minor key pieces might be included in a study playlist because they focus the seriousness of the task at hand. As well as the Western major and minor scales, tonality refers to the modes of Classical Greece. Both Plato and Socrates recognised links between musical modes and character qualities. For example, the Dorian mode was perceived as masculine and courageous, and the Lydian mode as feminine and indolent.

Texture refers to the thickness of the musical arrangement and whether the music is vocal or instrumental. The simplest texture is monophonic, which is a single melody played either by itself, or with more players in unison. Homophonic music adds vertical support in the form of chords, while polyphonic texture is contrapuntal in nature. The thicker the texture, the more cognitive attention required to process the music. Therefore thickly textured music such as a symphony can be too demanding for studying. More suitable is thin-textured music, perhaps that of a solo acoustic guitar, cello, or piano.

In the home most students study to fast music with lyrics. Lyrics pose a problem. There are some exceptions, such as a Latin text in Renaissance choral music, but the problem with lyrics is that students listen more intently, and even sing along with the lyrics, if only in their mind. This requires cognitive attention and competes with the same brain areas that are trying to comprehend the task at hand. The brain perceives instrumental arrangements of songs without the lyrics in about the same way as it perceives those same songs with lyrics. For studying, instrumental music is a better choice. Background music that incorporates the optimum characteristics for study can be found in many genres, but music from the baroque and early classical period probably satisfies the criteria best. Whilst for some people this genre of music may not be first-choice in regular music-listening, in this situation it’s important to realise that it’s not about entertainment, but regulating one’s emotional state in preparation for learning.

This blog topic has explored using background music at a private study level. I hope you have found it interesting and useful, and welcome your comments and any other feedback you would like to offer. Further, my one-hour presentation ‘Study, Stress and Music’ for students Years 10-13 is available, should I be in your part of the world. Although I spend most of my time between Australia, Asia and the UK these days, I do find myself in other parts of the world, so contact me for more information.

Some school teachers play music for whole classes engaged in quiet work. This is the subject of my next blog.

Excerpts from ‘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
3 comments on “Background Music with Homework? Part 4: Music and Study
  1. Sinead Roy says:

    Did I miss the link to the next blog.I’m a teacher who uses background music in class. It’s very helpful during math but I turn it off for language-based learning. I’d love to read the “next blog” you mentioned.

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