The Effects of Noise Pollution on Learning in a Multilingual Classroom

Do You Hear What I Hear? 

by Natalia Heckman and Aloise Miller

From Natalia Heckman

Noisy classrooms do not always equal engagement. The idea for this blog came into focus after my recent conversation with my dear colleague and friend Aloise Miller. Flying over Texas, we chatted about voice levels, music selection, and classroom noise overall. The topic of this blog is noise pollution. Not the sound of students collaborating in groups or with partners. Not the sound of students playing games or enthusiastically debating a hot topic. We all know that kind of noise is good! Instead, we discussed the other kind of noise: the unnecessary kind.

Noise Levels

Constant chatter and unnecessary background music may hinder learning and significantly affect multilingual learners. Teachers report that multilingual learners often ask to sit in the hall because the room is too loud

Listening to a lecture in a foreign language requires much effort from language learners. The cognitive demand can be exhausting. Any disruptions, including side conversations, diffuse attention and interfere with comprehension. What can teachers do to cut down on side conversations?

Classrooms with loud teachers are heaven for side-talkers. Dr. Rich Allen, an educational consultant I shadowed a few years ago, pointed out that the louder the teacher was, the easier it was for side-talkers to “hide” under the teacher’s voice. If the teacher turned down the volume even slightly, the side talkers, no longer drowned by the booming voice of the teacher, instantly appeared on display and were less likely to carry on the unwanted conversation. So, save your voice, and turn down your own volume! 

In addition to monitoring your own voice as the teacher, it is important to provide structures or cues to students on the appropriate level of noise in the classroom during structured conversations or even free voluntary reading. Here is a picture from a middle school campus where the teacher uses press-on lights to help students to self-regulate their voice levels.

Background Music 

Music is another form of noise pollution. Playing one’s favorite songs in class can be a way to connect with the students, but…

First and foremost, music preferences are cultural. Melodies that are pleasing to my husband’s American ears are jarring to my Russian ears, and vice versa. We do not find each other’s music selections enjoyable. If my teacher played my hubby’s song list in the classroom, I would definitely ask to sit in the hall—or even worse, I would suffer in silence and dread going to that classroom. In many cultures, students are taught not to question teachers and would never consider bringing up the issue, quietly enduring their teacher’s musical preferences.

Secondly, overall noise level tolerance is different in different cultures, and constant background noise is a distinct feature of American society. Most of my American friends say that the sound of the TV in the background is comforting; they study and work with the TV on 24/7. To me, having background noise all the time is unbearable. If you have newcomers in your room, consider their cultural backgrounds and noise level tolerance, and have mercy on their ears. Ask your students about their study habits by conducting this quick, anonymous survey. Their answers may surprise you! 

In my ___classroom,…Sometimes AlwaysNever
I study best with music.
I study best without music.(quiet conversations don’t bother me)
I study best when it is completely silent. (no music, no conversations)

Miss, can I use my headphones? 

Once I understood that I could not force-feed my music to the students, I started wondering if they should be allowed to listen to their own music when the academic task calls for it. For example, I often let students use headphones when they were writing, and I asked them to select music without lyrics; however, there was no way for me to check whether they listened to my advice.  

Music for Learning 

There will be times when students ask you to play some music. Luckily, we can use research to guide our music selections, thus ensuring that our tunes are optimal for learning and completing specific academic tasks. We can begin with the basic tenet that learning will happen if we create an environment that is comfortable and engaging for all students. By playing carefully curated music at predetermined times, teachers can enhance students’ cognitive abilities, stimulate creativity, and orchestrate a state of relaxation. Ahhh.

From Aloise Miller

Music By the Numbers. It’s All in the Numbers!

Alpha Waves

Have you heard of Alpha Waves? Having the brain in what neuroscientists call an “alpha state of mind” is ideal for learning and retaining information. In this state, the brain can relax and focus, the mind becomes calm and alert, and concentration increases. There are many available “compositions” using a specific beat frequency that would probably not be “music to anyone’s ears.” However, a quick search on YouTube for Deep Focus will lead you to hours of music perfectly composed to help students concentrate. 

Music with 50-80 Beats per Minute 

Selecting music with a tempo in the range of 50-80 beats per minute can help learners achieve the alpha state. A Spotify study showed that people were calmer when listening to music within that range. This “sweet spot” apparently helps to induce the alpha state where the mind is relaxed but also alert, with creativity and imagination stimulated. This alpha state of mind is widely thought to be the best mental state to be in for learning.  Baroque music and Jazz are composed in this range. All of the digital music platforms have expertly assembled playlists across a variety of musical genres. 

Mozart Effect 

No conversation about music and learning is complete without a discussion of the 1993 study by Rauscher, the Mozart Effect. The research indicated an increase in the spatial abilities of participants who listened to classical music. Spatial abilities help our students reason about shapes, angles, and distances and help them think more clearly and accurately about mathematics. The researchers proposed that exposure to Mozart and other classical music increases the construction of alpha waves, which aid in learning. In my classroom, I often played energizing sonatas by Mozart or the Four Seasons concerto by Vivaldi after lunch or during project times. The happy, vibrant music seemed to please all learners and kept them awake and alert. There has been ample debate over the validity of the results of the Mozart Effect, but the relationship between music and learning suggests a strong positive link.

Multicultural Music 

Music is a boon to the multilingual-multicultural classroom! Exposing our students to a variety of musical genres can enhance not only their mental state but their cultural awareness as well. Some students might find this Indian Classical Music very soothing and achieve their best ability to focus while enveloped by these compositions; others might not be open to this experience. We can experiment more freely with the music we play during transitions yet err on the side of caution during the more cognitively demanding activities, where the focus should be on learning and not music. By playing different types of music for different purposes and anonymously surveying our students about their preferences, we can tune in to the optimal learning playlist! 

The Final Movement…

If you love incorporating music into your lessons, here are some suggestions from Valentina Gonzalez and Tina Beene.


Rugg, M. (2010, January 1). How does background noise affect our concentration? Scientific American. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2022, from 

Patel, D. (2019, January 9). These 6 types of music are known to dramatically improve productivity. Entrepreneur. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2022, from 

Seguin, M (2016). Our musical tastes might be shaped by our culture, scientists say Insider. Retrieved Mon. Nov 11, 2022,  from

Singer, E (2004, April 23). Molecular basis for Mozart effect revealed. Life. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2022 from, D., Bergström, K.,& Lachmann, T. (2013, August 30). Does noise affect learning? A short review of noise effects on cognitive performance in children. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved Tue, Nov. 11, 2022, from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s