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.


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