Paper Review: The Effect of Music on Bullying

Ziv, N., & Dolev, E. (2013). The effect of background music on bullying: A pilot studyChildren & Schools  35 (2). 83-90. doi: 10.1093/cs/cdt006

This paper caught my eye as it got a lot of media attention last week. Its an area I’ve researched, and is recently published, so I thought it would be worthwhile writing a review of it.


The paper reports a  pilot study which looked at whether calming background music, could lower bullying occurrence. Fifty-six 11-12 year-olds from two classes completed a bullying and an arousal questionnaire after break-time on three consecutive days. Then, a week later,  calming background music was played during the break-time on three consecutive days and children completed the same questionnaires. In the final week, there was no music and children completed the questionnaires again on three consecutive days. Results showed reduced bullying, lower arousal levels, and higher enjoyment of break-times when music was played. Bullying increased on the third week of the study, but remained lower than initial levels. Thus, the authors suggest, calming background music might help alleviate playground bullying.

This paper fits in well with the extant literature on school climate and bullying – a literature to which I have contributed. The basic premise of this research is that a positive school atmosphere, centered on cooperative play and a co-operative school ethos, lowers the acceptance and frequency of bullying-like behaviours among children (see for example, Thapa, Cohen,  Guffey &Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2013). The authors themselves cite further evidence that music has a calming influence on children’s behaviour (for example, Koshland, Wilson, & Wittaker, 2004). In Ziv and Dolev (2013), the effects of music on bullying are present, and strong, showing a significant difference in reported bullying between days when music was played versus when it was not. The sample size might be something undergraduates would mention, but as Stevens (no date) notes, this study wasn’t under-powered, so the effect is genuine – something may be concluded about the effect of music on 11-12 year-olds’ behaviour.

But what? The authors, in addition to bullying, measured arousal (defined as fear, stress, and tension) and the pleasantness of the break-time for the children. Results showed that arousal levels were lower, and enjoyment higher, when music was played. The authors set out to show whether  music “through its effect on arousal and mood, could create a pleasant atmosphere and reduce bullying occurrence” (p. 83). Yet, surprisingly, this indirect effect is never actually tested. The effects of music on arousal, and on pleasantness, and the effects of direct bullying on pleasantness are each reported in separate analyses.  The effect of pleasantness on indirect forms of bullying is not reported at all. So, neither we, nor the authors, can conclude that music has its effect on bullying through calmer children, or increased enjoyment.

What about the music – it was that used for yoga, with a strong Indian influence – relaxing music. The authors note that musical preference varies culturally, with different music having its effect differentially across cultures, so there is a case for a larger, more culturally diverse sample.  That’s true. What we can’t conclude from this study, however, is that it is the music per se that is affecting levels of bullying.  It could be the evocation of cultural imagery, the rhythm/pace of what is played, or other interpretations of the pieces that was driving the effect. One should also note that only one type of music was tested. What interests me, is what the effect of fast-paced, or battle-like music might be on children’ behaviour – since my research has shown that a competitive context can increase condoning of bullying.

The authors further note that children self-reported on bullying. Children self-reported on the level of victimization that they were experiencing, through a well-established questionnaire. What about the extent to which they themselves were engaging in bullying? Asking children about the bullying that either they (or their peers, to stop children reporting what adults want to hear) were perpetrating would have given a fuller picture of the effect of music on bullying.

It is difficult to determine from this paper the absolute differences in scores across the time period. The mean score on the arousal scale  is given as ranging from  3.61 (week 2) to 5.97 (week 3) – the three-item arousal scale is said to run from 0-3, so it is likely that scores on each item were summed – was the maximum score nine? Did arousal level increase in a positive way, making children feel more energized? This was not tapped here. The scale range for the bullying questionnaire is not given (and is published in Hebrew) – it would be useful to know what the response options were for the items concerning bullying, too. Further, enjoyment of break-time was measured with only one item – ‘was the break-time pleasant’ (not at all / so-so / very pleasant). This gives face validity to the measure, but using further items to get at different aspects of pleasantness (e.g., increased group interaction, physical exertion) would make this facet of the study more robust, and would help tease out the impact that music has on break-time enjoyment.

In conclusion, then, the study reported shows, for the first time, clear links between bullying, arousal, enjoyment of break-time, and playing of music during break-times. Determining the exact nature of the links between those variables, together with possible improvements to the way that variables are defined and measured, make the study reported in this paper very ripe ground for future research.


A Week in the Life of a Post-Doc

Since I haven’t had much time to post earlier this week, I thought it might be interesting for you to see what I have been up to….here’s a diary of my working week this week:

Monday. I always start the day with email and Twitter (having looked at Facebook on the journey in). It being Monday, there were some student messages (yes, student messages) to deal with from the weekend, and a few interesting links to follow up (for example the one below).

I then worked out what needed to be done this week, and what needs to be done, if there’s time, but could wait. I worked on preparation for a friendship workshop for a primary school that I would be giving on Thursday – updating the materials and making sure I had enough evaluation forms and blu-tac.

Tuesday. After email, I worked on with some student-related admin., and started work on reporting the findings of a recent communications survey I ran as an ordinary member of the BPS Developmental Section. I was very glad that I taught first year stats this year (not sure I would have remembered how to produce effective tables, or that I would know how to get data from Google to SPSS otherwise), and I wrote the findings up. They should be on the website soon – but to give you a sneak preview – email from the Section is a popular means of communication – and members like to receive our newsletter in hard copy 🙂

The afternoon was taken up with a staff meeting. I agreed to teach on a new module the Department will be running in the Autumn term. Having asked for advice at the meeting about the student admin., I spent the rest of the afternoon finishing off my work on that.

Wednesday.  On Wednesday, I met with an student from the School of Education, who would be helping me with the workshops on Thursday (since one workshop has over 50 children in it) and showed her the materials, and talked them through. I then had a ‘phone call with a co-author on a paper, about some stats that are doing my head in I’m finding tricky,  and he says he can re-code the data to make the analysis possible, and in line with previous work in the area. All good :-). There was another staff meeting on Wednesday afternoon where I presented a report.

After that, I needed to prepare a precis of the teaching I intend doing on the new module (see Tuesday), including a seminar plan. Worked out what that might be, and sent it off in the right direction.

Thursday. Met with the student from Education early today, and we made our way to the primary school. I was there all day, doing an assembly, and then four workshops.


Whole school assembly – question time 🙂

It was generally good – the children still like the assembly, and most year groups worked well together. I’ll need to structure the workshop more closely for Year 1 pupils next time I do it – they need more adult input and guidance than I realized.

Although school finished at 3.00pm, I came home after the workshop ended: I was too  tired to do any more.

Friday.   Paper is heavy!  I bus-ed / walked all the evaluation forms back to the office, and sorted them through. The vast majority are positive (yay!) and a couple really made me smile:

My workshops are awesome 🙂

This afternoon, I met with a student doing an Independent Study module dissertation, to discuss his area of interest, and then with a colleague in Psychology to discuss a grant proposal we’re working on. We think we can stream two ideas together quite nicely – I just need to review the pertinent literature now to check that this is the case, and we’ll meet in a few weeks’ time.

And now I want to plan out what needs to be done next week, when the work will start over again ….