Learning is a five senses experience. Playing music is an easy way of throwing sound around as if to say “This is who I am, this is the type of learning environment that I’m trying to create”. Moving around chairs takes time or setting up things, but just by playing music you can create an entirely different environment.
Background music can cause what is called cognitive arousal, which improves mood. Music has been previously explored in the information literacy classroom and has positive correlations between background music and student comfort, retention, and confidence. Music can also increase certain type of perception as documented in the famous Mozart effect. At the same time, listeners should not doubt the fact that they are multitasking and can in some cases harm cognitive performance on tasks.
I have many opinions on music that I play in class. I typically play music in the classroom as students arrive. I teach in an active learning environment, so there’s lots of small tasks, bringing things together, talked about what you should do in small group type of work. I do this firstly because it allows me to check the sound in the classroom. I then play music often when the students are working on a project, I think it makes clear when one task ends and another begins.
When I first started teaching I used to play music I like. Since I am from Seattle, that is mostly Indie Rock from the early 2000s, but I found that this was kind of really depressing. Also it is surprisingly discouraging when students make fun of the music and it is music that you like. This is also why you should not play music from your childhood.
I switched to Pandora station with a Stevie Wonder seed. I have carefully cultivated this Pandora station for the majority of the rest of my teaching career. I like Motown because it’s almost always easy to listen to and always a little upbeat without being too sickly sweet. It makes good background music that perks you up just a little bit.
The link to that Pandora Station: https://www.pandora.com/station/972927259948434106
My students make fun of me using Pandora, and I can see that Spotify is probably a superior product, but I have so many year of cultivation for the Pandora station I don’t really feel like I can leave it. I mean, it needs me, you know?
I play dubstep/electronica in other people’s classes, or during freshmen orientation, when I was trying to create an environment that says “look guys there’s a different teacher up here today you can tell because I am playing Dubstep” My favorite song to play is Space Monkeys from the Fight Club Soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrReKwwtdsM&t=204s Another professor I know played Linkin Park for similar reasons.
I have also found that my international students actually prefer to listen to classical music. I’ve seen studies that show that music without lyrics is actually better for studying because then your mind isn’t microtasking as much. This is especially true for international students, where playing a bunch of English language over everything else is likely to give a lot of cognitive challenges. I created another Pandora station, based on Lord of the Rings. I like it, but I also think it can get a little Overly Dramatic Let’s Go to Mordor, so I only play it when there’s like an extra special or important assignment.
Link to Lord of the Rings Station: https://www.pandora.com/station/2363995905025458874
Lifehacker- The Best Sounds for Getting Work Done: https://lifehacker.com/5365012/the-best-sounds-for-getting-work-done