Can music have beneficial effects in the classroom? Teachers in a Warwickshire school set out to test theories that Mozart’s music stimulates learning, as Dr James Haughton reports

Reports in the press and books such as The Mozart Effect by Don Campbell (2001) have popularised the idea that music can have beneficial effects upon learning. They have claimed that listening to certain types of music may enhance thinking skills, or create an appropriate mood, or climate, for effective learning to take place.

Meanwhile, serious attempts to establish clear and objective links between listening to music and the enhancement of learning in general have been undertaken by Shaw (2000) and others.

The theoretical and research background
Following a prediction by Leng and Shaw that certain types of music could affect ‘neural processes’, Rauscher and Shaw speculated as to whether the simple act of ‘listening’ to music could produce a short-term enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning (Shaw, 2000). This speculation led to an experiment, later termed ‘the Mozart effect’, whereby 36 students took part in three separate and distinct listening activities, which were followed by specific Stanford-Binet intelligence tests.

The three listening activities consisted of the first 10 minutes of the Mozart Piano Sonata K488, 10 minutes of a popular musical ‘relaxation tape’, and 10 minutes of silence. The experiment provided evidence that the students performed better in the IQ tests after listening to the Mozart Sonata. Shaw (2000) replicated these findings in a follow-up experiment, involving 79 students.

The action research proposal
The action research project described here took place in a rural secondary modern school with approximately 1,000 learners aged 11-18. It aimed to establish whether playing music by Mozart in the classroom had any effect upon:

  • the climate for learning, focusing specifically on behaviour
  • levels of commitment
  • attitudes to learning
  • levels of attainment.

A total of eight teachers took part in this project. They represented a range of curriculum subjects, including art, English, history, modern foreign languages and science. Ninety-one learners were engaged in lessons taken by these teachers.

The music played in ‘the Mozart effect’ action research project included the Piano Sonata K488 for two pianos used by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky, and a number of Mozart’s concertos for piano and orchestra. The teachers involved in the project were free to decide whether they played the sonata, or one of the concertos, and further, to decide the most appropriate times to play the music.

They were required to record, in research diaries, the music they played, whether it was fast or slow, together with any perceived ‘effects’ the music may have had on learners. Learners’ perspectives about the effects of the music played in lessons were also gathered through a series of questionnaires and interviews.

Results and drawbacks
Despite the subjective nature of this project, the evidence collected allowed a number of claims to be made, particularly relating to the development of the climate for learning. Playing music in the classroom appears to have had a calming effect, and teachers observed learners concentrating and working more quietly than usual, thus promoting positive attitudes, and a cooperative climate for learning.

Behaviour, however, became an issue in some instances, and silliness ensued in response to the type of music played. Some learners asked why they could not listen to pop music, but pop music was not on the agenda, as ‘the Mozart effect’ experiment had failed to identify any benefit from listening to popular music.

In retrospect, however, both teachers and learners recognised that the poor response in listening to music by Mozart, in some cases, may have been due to a level of inconsistency. Firstly, it should be acknowledged that the music was played in some curriculum subjects and not in others and, secondly, some of the teachers actively taking part in the research, were unable to play the music in their lessons on a regular basis.

Attitudes, and levels of commitment to learning, were perceived not to have improved, but this may be due to the short period of time allowed for the project.

Learning from the drawbacks
In retrospect it can be seen that the length of time allocated for this project was too short, and the teachers collaborating on the research, due to a wide range of reasons, were unable to initiate the project with consistency over the period of time allocated, from September, to the end of October 2006. Ideally, this project should have run for a whole academic year, which would have provided three formal assessment points, where progress could have been measured more accurately and more consistently.

References and further reading

  • Clark, Laura (2000). ‘How Mozart Boosts Pupils’ Brainpower’, Daily Mail, 11 October.
  • Campbell, D (2001). The Mozart Effect, London, Hodder & Staunton.
  • Shaw, GL (2000). Keeping Mozart in Mind, London, Academic Press.