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Essay: The effects of background music on students' learning and cognitive performance

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  • Published: 12 September 2015*
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The initial basis of this research project was to evaluate the increasing number of exploratory studies into the effects of background music, and the influence it had on a students learning and cognitive performance. The purpose therefore was to review and assess the increasing amount of data into the actual effects of what background music has on the human mind itself. It is anticipated that conclusions from this research project will better provide schools and colleges alike with awareness in to the effects and applications of background music, in particular the educational setting, thus improving cognitive behaviour.
It could therefore be argued that background music could allude to ‘music intended to be heard but not actively or purposely listened to’. (Musselman1974, Bendall (1994) and would therefore be distinctive from genuine music education syllabuses within a school setting.
It has been argued that listening to differing genres of music for educational purposes had been deemed collective practice amongst school children and students alike to combat the effects of tension and pressure for several years. During the planning stages of this initial project, some studies confirmed this very practice which enhanced a student’s perceptive performance, whereas further studies argued that listening to varying genres of music whilst involved in intricate tasks within a classroom setting have had adverse effects, thus ultimately weakening the student’s achievement.
This study on the impact of background music would therefore concentrate on the influence of several genres of music studies, performed at diverse volume levels, thus evaluate whether the mounting body of research performed in an educational environment would enhance and maximise the learning experience.
Modern improvements in the research of the brain have permitted us to improve our acceptance of the way that vigorous association with music impacts upon other changes. However our understanding of the way the mind performs is still in the early stages, and could be argued, that a few of the essential developments ramified within learning have been recognised. The human brain encompasses around 100 billion neurons, a significant amount of which are operating instantaneously. According to Enchanted.com [online]:’neurons are nerve cells that transmit nerve signals to and from the brain at up to 200mph’.
In effect information transformation is commenced fundamentally through communications between them, each devising almost a thousand associations with additional neurons. Therefore when we study as students and individuals, changes can occur in the development axons and the dendrites with a significant amount of synapses which connect these neurons, a procedure called synaptogenius (2004).
According to Fields (2005):
When an event is important enough, or is repeated sufficiently often synopses and neurons fire repeatedly indicating that this event is worth remembering.
Moreover variations in the effectiveness of present influences are made. As students and adults alike begin to learn and particularly when undertaking activities with background music played, myelinisation (2011) takes hold, in effect a myelin sheath develops around a nerve strand. According to (Panlev et al 2003):
Combinations of these processes occur over different time scales, the cerebral cortex self-organises in response to external stimuli and the individuals learning activities.
Hence the chronological observation of external motivations has therefore been perceived through contemporary and practical visualisation examinations, with Stefan Koelsch (2005) sanctioning the connection of expressively charged music with the recognised emotive centres of the brain. In effect he claimed music should be stimulated by motivation rather that pictorial images. Conversely and throughout previous years, neurosciences have learned that music can become a valued implement to examine such emotions. According to Stefan Koelsch.et.al, significant benefits to background music are:
‘1: Music is capable of inducing emotional with a fairly strong intensity.
2: Such emotions can usually be induced quite consistently across many subjects
3: Music can induce not only unpleasant but also pleasant emotions’.
Music education theorist Elliott (1995) claimed the three aims in life were ‘self-growth, self-esteem and enjoyment (p119)’.Therefore in his argument, self-esteem would be vital for encouraging human performance and for additional educational awareness. It would consequently offer students the resolution to challenge new goals hence reduce their anxiousness of disappointment. According to the successful learning model (2005) (see fig2.1), the self-inspired student could relish achievement and gratification in educating oneself and would want to reiterate the practise. The student would therefore pass into the first phase of ‘flow’ coined by psychologist Csikszentmihalyi(1990) .This implies a peak learning area in which the complexity of attention is gratifyingly obscured in the exercise, thus being particularly absorbed on the assignment in hand.
Moreover Csikszentmihalyi’s understanding of the ‘flow’ derives from the encounters that the student is given and ultimately met by the expertise required from the student themselves. In addition the student’s frame of mind could be enhanced or interfered with according to the educational model itself. It could further be argued that the emotions could yield functional variations and could therefore change a student’s state of mind. During this emotive state of stimulation, the heartbeat could rise along with the student’s body temperature. Alpay (2002) proposes that this stimulation is nothing more than an expected social condition which would formulate students for the accepted inherent reaction in survival. Alpay(2002) similarly states that ‘when motivational drives are low, external arousal is often necessary to attend to learning situations in the classroom(pg5)’.Learning therefore could be reliant upon applicable emotive conditions with the correct level of stimulation which would need to be affirmative greater caution and accuracy’. In supporting Fergusons argument Wilson (2000) also found that ‘a sad emotive state helped students memorise negative facts such as war, history and encourages the learning of positive facts’.
However Fergus (2006) argued that: ‘some tasks are better handled in a negative emotional state as it encourages greater caution and accuracy’. In supporting Fergusons argument Wilson (2000) also found that ‘a sad emotive state helped students memorise negative facts such as war, history and encourages the learning of positive facts’. Inclusion of background music within an educational setting has been based upon ‘The Cognitive Learning Theory (2004)’. According to Sincero (2004):
The cognitive learning theory explains why the brain is the most incredible network of information processing and interpretation in the body as we learn things. This theory can be divided into two specific theories: The Social Cognitive Theory and the Cognitive Learning Theory.’
Sincero’s philosophy of functioning recollection could suggest that the concentration span would have restricted means in dispensing similar levels of data consequently succumbing to strain when exposed to too much material. However in stark contrast Gardeners theory of Multiple Intelligences (1984) proposes that although administration of individual intellects takes residence in diverse areas of the mind, classification of alleged impairments might not be that forthright. It could therefore infer that the stimulation component was intrusive once it intersected across the line.
Hallam Price et al (2002) further proposed that background music could be incorporated to escalate or preserve a student’s stimulation levels for learning projects. He further explained that this would be reliant upon the set piece itself. Thus the more intellectual the task, the smaller amount of incentives would be necessary, hence pieces of work that required determination would profit from advanced levels of stimulation to supplement increases of inspiration. (See Fig 2.2)
However Furnham and Allass (1999) disputed that when contemplating stimulation, a supplement which needs to be considered is the individuality of the student. They further claim that the individuality of the student would govern the extent of ‘external stimulation required in creating an optimal level of arousal(pg28/29)’.This could further suggest that an adapted stimulus would be essential to reach an optimal stimulant for each student alike. Alpay (2002) supported this further by suggesting:
‘Introverted students are generally perceived to desire little arousal which would otherwise cause anxiety, whereas extroverts are likely to desire relatively high levels of arousal’.
In deducing Alpay’s theory, it could infer that solitary individuals would perform superior to outgoing individuals when they both performed tasks in silence. (See fig 2.2).
Consequently due to a large range of personalities amongst students, it could be assumed that not all individuals would flourish from the use of background music.
Thus less complicated music could therefore be the idyllic and most suitable choice. (See fig 2.3).
Knick (1987) quoted background music as’ a level of about 35 decibels can maximise alertness, allow relaxation, improve classroom ambience, aid learning and improve academic performance’ (pg587).
The chronological view of peripheral incentives
It could therefore be argued that through affectivity, could music truly stimulate and influence performance particularly with students in an educational setting?
Specifically and for the resolution of this research project, could background music in particular, awaken students to learn and enhance an optimal learning environment, or would it dampen their learning capabilities. According to Savan (1996) ’emotion and physical variations are indistinguishably connected consequently exerting in physical changes.’
Although numerous studies have investigated the learning benefits of background music, it could further be argued that particular cautions are still needed in the clarification of their conclusions. Countless studies have manufactured various results, several finding that background music had no advantage on retention of memory or on the ability of taking exams. Others have however argued that the use of composed background music creates modest to substantial increases in any of the perceptive functions. However the clarification that background music has an unswerving cognitive effect could become problematic. According to Leung and Feung (2005): ‘temperature, ventilation, noise, decoration and space management should all be considered as arousal stimuli, and many of these factors are being explored’.
It could be argued therefore that the power of music may be ancillary or subjective to other variations within the classroom to obtain optimum results, particularly within the student’s anxiety levels. Although the advantage of background music in an educational setting may be subsidiary or have no direct cognitive effects, it could still be argued that it has considerable and weighty educational advantages. Therefore for the purpose of this project, I will examine four studies in depth, Hall, (1952), Scott (1970), Swann (1998) and Giles (1991) thus, examine the effects and stimulus with background music played on the arithmetic and memory tasks of a diverse range of students.

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