CELFS Teaching and Learning Network

Is playing music in EAP classes too playful?


by Donna Mac Lean

Recently I experimented with playing background music during an EAP reading class in an attempt to make the process of reading and analysing a quite dry, difficult text more palatable for the students.  Their subject tutor had noted that students were not completing preparation reading, which was negatively impacting their seminar performance.  I was surprised by how popular the move was and how the benefits of playing music that I’d read about were evidenced during the class.

Harmer (2001:242) writes that music is, “a powerful stimulus for student engagement”. From an ESP point of view, Cheung (2001, cited in Engh, 2013: 115) notices that “bridging gaps between ‘formal and informal’ learning” can make learners more receptive to learning.  Scrivener (1998:339) notes a variety of benefits to classroom background music in creating a positive mood, allowing students to relax, de-stress and concentrate on ‘dull’ tasks, as well as allowing tutors to change the pace of a class.  Richards (2015: 197) discusses the idea of teachers creating a positive mood, writing that they need to be aware of the “emotional dimension to learning as well as the pedagogical side”.  This is also relevant to his discussion of age-appropriate pedagogy, where he comments, “the affective dimensions of the classroom” are extremely important to teenagers (Richards, 2015: 238), a point increasingly relevant to the IFP cohort.

It seems clear that learning is a multisensory experience, and using background music in class has a range of benefits, both cognitive as well as affective.   During the class, as soon as I put the background music on the atmosphere lifted, students became more communicative and they engaged with the reading task.  The music helped them access a ‘group flow’ dynamic. When surveyed anonymously afterwards, although one student wasn’t sure about the effect the background music had had, seven of the eight students commented that it had helped their concentration and mood, and requested music to be used further in the class.

So why isn’t music used more in EAP classrooms?  Engh (2013: 113) suggests that tutors may be unclear about the theoretical rationale for it, or that in assessment focused courses it might be viewed as too playful.

I was also concerned that the music might become a distraction or a source of entertainment rather than focus.  I talked to Rachel Wall about the ways in which she uses music in EAP classes and we’ve put together some ideas for you to try:

  • Try ambient, melodic, electronic music without lyrics for background music. Spotify has some custom made playlists for focus and concentration which play without interruption or adverts.
  • Use shorter, more energetic pieces of music as timers for tasks such as skimming and scanning
  • Create pre-reading mingle discussion activities with more energetic music in the background (perhaps encourage students to choose a track themselves for this task).
  • Use songs to pre-teach vocabulary.
  • Use songs/music as writing prompts.
  • Be careful of students attempting to DJ for you during the class…


Grabe, W and Stoller, F.L. (2001) Reading for academic purposes: guidelines for the EFL teacher, in: Celce-Murcia, M. (2001). Teaching English as a second or foreign language. 1st ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Engh, D. (2013). Why Use Music in English Language Learning? A Survey of the Literature. English Language Teaching, 6(2).

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. 1st ed. [Essex, England]: Longman.

Richards, J. (2015). Key issues in language teaching. 1st ed. CUP.

Scrivener, J. (1998). Learning teaching. 1st ed. London: Macmillan Heinemann.


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