Do you play background music in your classroom?

Background music is used extensively throughout society, particularly in marketing, sports psychology and medicine. It is used to reduce stress, create an illusion, manipulate perception, alter people’s emotional state, and to enhance well-being. What about the use of background music in class?

There are two reasons teachers might experiment with background music in classrooms.

  1. To improve classroom behaviour and atmosphere
  2. To improve the quality and/or quantity of work

Appropriately chosen music can improve classroom behaviour and atmosphere, which in turn improves learning outcomes. As a general rule though, the more complex the learning task, the more distracting background music becomes. Most students like having background music in the classroom. Students report the following positive benefits of background music:

  • It shuts out distractions. I get immersed in my own world and become more productive.
  • 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.
  • It makes time go by fast, it helps me work quicker.
  • It’s good for repetitive homework tasks
  • It helps me reflect
  • It helps my creativity (Einstein is well known for associating music and creativity)
  • It makes studying more enjoyable.

Knowing when to turn the music on or off will come with teacher experience, but there are some fundamental principles that apply when selecting background music for general school classrooms.

  1. Do not let the students select the music. This is not about entertainment, but about establishing an environment to improve learning arousal.
  2. Use instrumental music only. There are some exceptions such as Latin text in Renaissance choral. Students listen and even sing with lyrics, detracting from their cognitive attention. The most distracting background music is fast vocal music chosen and liked by the student. Refer back to point 1.
  3. Volume must be low. The physiological and psychological effects of music listening occur whether or not people are deliberately attentive to it. Volume preference is highly individualistic, but people are less tolerant of loud music rather than soft music. The louder the music, the more distracting it becomes.
  4. Volume level must be consistent. Most playlist compilations source tracks from several sources, so there is discrepancy in volume levels. Most computer based mp3 players such as iTunes have built in devices designed to condense dynamic variation. Shuffle the playlist to keep it fresh.
  5. Expect a settling in period. The introduction of background music in classes requires a period of adjustment. Students might complain about the style of music, and also offer their preferences as a substitute. Most research on this subject has found an adjustment period of up to two weeks. Grumblings will subside and listeners will be comfortable with this new addition to the environment. Then the positive effects of music can work its magic in transforming the ambience in your classroom.

How is music chosen to achieve different goals? Music components impact learning mood. In particular, tonality, tempo, pitch and texture all play an important role in affecting our mood. Music of a major tonality is happier and more positive than minor music. Faster tempi raise the heartbeat and music with lyrics demand more cognitive processing resources. These musical constituents should determine playlist selections.

The most important factor is the choice of music, and this is where I can assist. I have provided playlists for schools from Australia to Luxembourg, and have an 8-hour playlist specifically created for classrooms. The product can be downloaded as a zip file via a link. Contact me Please note, a fee applies.

What do schools say about this playlist? Michael, We are really enjoying the playlist. The children work better during writing time with the classical selections and the contemporary ones work really well for just general working atmosphere. Thanks a lot for the great resource. (Grade 5 teacher)

Michael, Your background music has made a big difference to the atmosphere in the classroom. Several other teachers here at the school are now trialling it in their classes. For my English classes it sets a very studious tone as the students start the lesson with a quiet comprehension activity. It plays throughout the lesson and is only occasionally noticeable ‘around’ the group activities. I suspect I might be playing the music too ‘audible’ but it is certainly barely there at times depending on the track. A couple of students have actually asked after certain pieces. (High School English teacher)

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
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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
5 comments on “Do you play background music in your classroom?
  1. Debra Pohlmann says:

    I would love to have the link to your playlist! Thanks so much!

  2. While I am a huge advocate of the “right” match for BG music in any given backdrop; and I’ve even gone to the mat FOR FREE with my own bank manager, various local restauranteurs, etc. regarding their choice of BG music. My first knee-jerk reaction to this is that the ‘classroom’ needs to be still for 100% original(non-influenced) and introspective thought to take place, excepting the gymnasium, recess, etc. Studies show that BG music does affect physical outcomes…and thus, very effective for production outcomes, in say, a machine shop or even banking environment at tax prep time. My two bits, as a current, card-carrying Music Psych consultant.

  3. Enrique says:

    What is the source or biblioagraphy for this article?


    • mdgriffin63 says:

      The bibliography can be sourced from my book ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ or my Masters dissertation ‘Background Music in the Learning Environment’.

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