The psychology of background music

In mid January The Daily Mail published an article concerning the reduction of bad behaviour at a school where pupils in detention were played classical background music. 

Head at West Park School in Derby, Brian Walker, plays Elgar, Mozart, Verdi and Bach and claims that there has been a 60% reduction in disruptive pupils since classical music has been played in detentions.

‘I am sure that, with some of them, sitting in silence listening to the music lets them reflect more about the reasons why they are in detention,’ Mr Walker said.

Similarly, London Underground (LU) now pipes classical music through the speakers in certain Victoria Line stations. LU followed Metro operator Nexus after it became the first UK transport system to introduce the use of classical background music in an attempt to curb criminal activity in 1997 - police figures show that criminal damage was down by 20% on the Metro system and levels of assault fell by a quarter.

Several studies now link the influence of music on brain activity to behavioural response. A new article recently published in NeuroImage investigates the influence of music on brain activity by trying to make sense of how we listen to music. It claims that the act of listening is actually an act of neural prediction.

In the words of the University of London scientists, ‘the ability to anticipate forthcoming events has clear evolutionary advantages, and predictive successes or failures often entail significant psychological and physiological consequences. In music perception, the confirmation and violation of expectations are critical to the communication of emotion and aesthetic effects of a composition’. 

The researchers examined the brain waves of twenty participants while they listened to various hymns. They found that it was the unanticipated pitches, outside of the melodic pattern, that caused a spike in brain activity and an interesting sequence of neural events:‘Our electrophysiological results showed that low-probability notes, as compared to high-probability notes, elicited a larger (i) negative ERP component at a late time period (400-450 ms), (ii) beta band (14-30 Hz) oscillation over the parietal lobe, and (iii) long-range phase synchronization between multiple brain regions.’ 

This shows that not only is an element of surprise required to activate certain neural processes but that music affects some primary neural mechanisms. It is common knowledge that music is linked to emotional response as we experience it on daily basis but observing how background music can affect behaviour can be far more powerful.

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