The Power of Music: An Exploration into the use of Background Music in the Religious Education Classroom to Enhance Classroom Environment

Karina Hussein was working in a complementary school dedicated to the Religious Education of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim youth in Toronto, Canada when she conducted her study in 2014. This research explores the use of background music in a religious education classroom and focuses on the impact on engagement and behaviour made by the introduction of background music in the classroom. The music selection used in this study included instrumental music, popular music and several other genres including R&B, Hip Hop, Rock, Spanish, Arabic, and Bollywood music.


Music is central to our day-to-day life.  Whether you listen to it on your iPod, while waiting at the doctor’s office, strolling through the mall, or even at work, “it marks out our spaces and our sense of who we are” (Bloustien & Peters, 2011, p.84). Music has become an integral part of the state curriculum in North America and has recently been introduced as a teaching tool within the classroom. One way in which this has been done is through the introduction of background music into the classroom. Several studies have shown that music is a powerful tool that has been used to enhance the secular school classroom, but I wondered if similar results could be found in the religious education (RE) classroom?

As a volunteer teacher in a faith-based RE system, teaching Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim youth for several years prior to pursuing my Master of Teaching, I used music in the classroom without giving much thought about the effectiveness of the music. While selecting a research topic for my master’s degree, I began thinking about whether using music in my classroom was effective, and the potential impact it may be having on my students. Conducting this study provided me an opportunity to learn more about a practice that I was already using in my classroom, and to explore whether background music can be a valuable tool in a RE classroom. This study investigated how background music can enhance the classroom environment, and the impact on student behavior and engagement.

What did I do?

IMG_2425This study was conducted with a RE classroom in Toronto, Canada with grade 11 and 12 (16-18 year old) pupils. As a visiting teacher, I was paired with a host teacher with whom I lesson planned and co-taught.

The study began with my observing the students for the first three weeks to provide a sense of what the behavior and level of engagement of students was like prior to the intervention of music. These observations were primarily recorded as field notes, and additional notes were added upon reflecting about student behavior and engagement with the host teacher. Additionally, a disruptive behavior observation sheet was used to tally the types of disruptive behavior that occurred in the classroom, both during teaching time as well as while students were completing tasks.

Background music was introduced in the fourth session and was utilized in the following ways:

Session 4: Music was used in two ways – the first was the use of music while pupils were completing an activity and the second while watching a video, where the video had words and images projected, and a song played in the background.

Session 5: Music was not used in this session

Session 6: Music was used at three different junctures in this class:  on the first two occasions it was played while the young people completed tasks, and they were required to complete the assigned task by the end of a selected song. On the third occasion, students watched a video while an instrumental played in the background.

Session 7: Due to a three-week gap between the sixth and seventh sessions, in the seventh session the pupils were exposed to music from the sixth session in order to determine whether this music might assist in ‘triggering’ their memory in relation to the content covered in the sixth session. Background music was also used as an instructional tool while students were completing a task on one occasion.

Session 8: The aim was to exclude music from the lesson plan in order to observe student behavior while completing tasks. Notwithstanding this element of the plan, music was used as an instructional tool while students were completing a task due to the off-task behaviors of students when completing the task without music.

Session 9: Music was used to ‘trigger’ student memory, but music was not used further in this session.

IMG_2521Questionnaires were used in this study to gain vital information about the participants, to get an understanding of the types of music students were interested in as well as to measure the young people’s feelings about the use of music in the classroom.

At the start of the study, a questionnaire was issued to obtain demographic information about the participants and an understanding of the role of music in the participants’ lives.  A second questionnaire was administered in the sixth session, which provided an understanding of student perceptions relating to the use of music in the classroom.  Two focus groups were also conducted as part of this study.

Several genres of music were used in this study. Allen and Wood (2013) suggest that selecting music that can be linked to content can enhance the learning experience for students, and therefore several songs selected for this study had a Spanish sound to them, as we were teaching Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. IMG_2351These musical pieces included a selection of instrumental Andalusian guitar songs, popular songs, such as Santana’s ‘Maria Maria’, which is Spanish infused, as well as Bollywood songs that also have a Spanish sound to them. Popular music was also used in this study, which included Cold Play’s ‘Viva la Vida’ and Drake’s ‘Just hold on we’re going home’ which were selected from student responses to a questionnaire administered at the beginning of the study.

What did I find?

 IMG_2421Music and Student Engagement

Background music seemed to have a positive impact on most students, in terms of on-task behaviors. There were a reduced number of behavioral management incidents that took place with the introduction of music while students were completing tasks. When music was not played in class, pupils exhibited off-task behaviors, which were corrected upon the implementation of background music.  Students did not have to be familiar with the background music in order to exhibit on-task behaviors. Music also served as a source of motivation for students to complete tasks on time, which was evidenced by students following instructions to complete their assigned tasks by the end of a selected song. Students also commented that this technique was useful for them to keep track of the time they had to complete a task. Most pupils also reported that listening to music while completing reading tasks in class provided them with a sense of concentration. Familiarity with songs was not required for students to report background music as a source of concentration while completing reading tasks.

Music and Pupil Behaviour

Most of the young people reported that they enjoyed listening to music in class. They responded to the music by singing, dancing, clapping, and moving their bodies, as well commenting on how much they enjoyed the music in class. Music appeared to play a crucial role in helping students remember content covered in class. IMG_2218All the pupils who completed questionnaire 2 believed that hearing a particular song helped them remember an event or situation that occurred while they were listening to that song. According to students, playing a song while completing a task and hearing the song at a later date in the classroom helped to trigger their memory, and put them back into the setting of when they first heard the song. When the song was played again in class, it produced a chain reaction, in which the young people were able to build upon each other’s thoughts to reconstruct a memory of what they had done in a previous class in terms of activities as well as content covered. Students identified the relevance of music to be one factor as to why music was successful in helping them remember what they had learned in a previous class. This theory was further tested in the focus group, in which all the pupils who participated were able to recall a video which was shown in class several weeks prior to the focus group, when I gave them the name of the artist whose song was playing in the background of the video. In this case, familiarity with the song may have been why this approach was effective.


Read Karina’s research in full here: Karina Hussein – Final MTeach Dissertation


3 thoughts on “The Power of Music: An Exploration into the use of Background Music in the Religious Education Classroom to Enhance Classroom Environment

  1. emmx2013 says:

    Very interesting use of music! Especially partnering the type of music with the subject matter. I wonder if recall of the subject matter is improved even when the music is not being played.
    Here’s to Your Health!

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