I recently got a question from a friend about music and its uses in learning. I am not an expert in it but I like the subject and like to stay informed about music and its effects on our metal and emotional state, specifically as it pertains to uses in education and learning.
There is a lot of different research on the value and effects of music, but there is even more pseudo-research (basically smart sounding opinions), so it is tricky to sift through. I have formed my own take on the values and problems of music based on my own reading and thinking - I am no scientist, so take it for what it is worth.
What I have come to believe over the last ten years is that certain kinds of music may help certain people get into certain states, but it depends on the person, the context, and the music used. For example, what does the music mean/not mean to them, are they receptive or do they enjoy that kind of music or not, are they listening to the song while they are stressed or angry about something or do they hear it while they are already relaxed and open minded, do they hear it at school or at home laying on their bed, etc. The state created by music is highly personal, based on our own experiences, preset mental preferences, genetic dispositions, and cultures. I have never seen a study of a large group of people with a wide variety of ages and contexts where it says "this is what this music does for everyone". I don't believe it can be done, based on my own use of music in learning environments over the past 20 years.
Even using music to exercise to has been proven as both good and bad for the listening exerciser. Some people work out longer when they have no music. Some worked out for shorter periods of time because the music made them expend more energy in a shorter amount of time (top of page 4). We can imagine that without any clocks to time themselves they may have thought "Oh, I love listening to music while I exercise - it really helps me!" even though it was actually distracting them from their exercise duration goals.
Ever heard anyone quote the "Mozart Effect"? The "Mozart effect" has been disproven. It probably stemmed from an adult who really felt themselves learning or working harder when they lsitened to Mozart, so the studies they set up were biased and therefore flawed.
So who is to say what is relaxing music, or what music is best for learning? If you go and play Baroque or classical European music like Bach or Handel or Vivaldi in a small classroom in Kenya or in a Hebrew street gang meeting, do you think their response will be different than in a suburban Minnesota school? If a bunch of students start saying they hate the Baroque music that the teacher is playing that is intended to "help them focus", does that mean the students are wrong and it really does help them focus? Whether the student agitation is true regarding the music or whether it is a response to them not liking the teacher or class (i.e. the context the students are in), they still are reacting with agitation and they believe it is triggered by the Baroque music.
So with all the conflicting studies out there what I now train people who use music about it is the influential tendencies of music with groups we are familiar with, not the facts of how it affects people, because there are not any strong comprehensive facts to work with that I've found. (If you know of any studies that cast light on these murky waters, please send them my way!)