“Hello, everybody! So glad to see you. Hello, everybody. We’re so glad to see you!” sang Miss Leigh, our Music Together instructor who engaged both parents and toddlers in song, dance, and music making once a week in my son’s early years. And from that singular experience emerged life-long friendships and a next-generation family connection to music that continues to influence our quiet times at home, our social lives, and our choices for entertainment and extracurricular activities.
Numerous studies on children’s exposure to music through instrument lessons or music education in school have shown that it can have a significant impact on a child’s brain development. In fact, children with musical training have been found to score higher on reading and math assessments, have greater spatial and fine motor skills, and enhanced social and emotional skills. (1) In addition, one study that examined 232 brain scans of healthy children found that those who played a musical instrument had a stronger ability to focus their attention, manage anxiety and exercise self-control. (2)
I personally witnessed evidence of children learning self-control through music on a recent school visit. Teachers directed thirty second-grade students to sing a phrase a- cappella (without instruments) and then, stop suddenly and rest during a set of beats counted out by both the teacher and the students. These children beamed with pride, as I watched, while they were right on time with their singing and with their absolute silence. They practiced and demonstrated their ability to control their impulses while collaborating with their classmates.
In our home lives, music can play a significant role. It can offer a pre-teen a sense of independence as she discovers her own taste in music and seeks out her favorites. Music can also feed a child’s intrinsic desires for autonomy (as he learns to play an instrument on his own), belonging (as she shares musical interests with her peers), and competence (as he hones his skills and abilities in music making).
Families can take advantage of multiple ways music can promote children’s social and emotional development by improving skills, creating a psychologically safe and joyful home environment, and building trust and connection among members. Here are some specific ideas.
Collaborative Music Making – Get out any instruments you might have laying around your house. Toys instruments work (Have you seen the Jimmy Fallon jam sessions with them?)! Create music together. We have a tradition of making music with friends when they come for dinner because after trying it once, the kids now request it.
Family Theme Song – Have you noticed each professional Baseball player has a “get psyched up” theme song that is played as he is positioning himself at bat? What might be your family theme song for times when you want to generate energy, cohesion, and enthusiasm? Maybe you are about to go on a summer road trip or vacation? Decide on your theme song together and relish in playing it.
You Write the Songs – Pick out a family favorite song – one that everyone knows. Now select a favorite animal (your pet?), place (your school?) or person (your best friend?). Change the words of the song to describe or tell the story of that creature or place. Make sure all family members have the chance to contribute. Practice and sing it with gusto!
PROMOTE SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL SKILLS.
Listening skills – Play a game with your children while listening to music. See how many instruments they can accurately name. Careful listening is often required when figuring out the layers of instrumentation.
Self-control – The spaces and silences in music can be just as defining and impactful as the sounds. Exercise your children’s self-control, an essential life skill, by taking turns singing or using instruments working on timing, beats, when to join in and when to become silent. You can do the same with dance. Move your body to the music and then, freeze when there are rests or the music is stopped.
ASSIST WITH EMOTIONS.
Deal with anger – Listening to calming music can assist a child who is angry or inconsolable. Time alone with soothing music can do wonders to calm an upset child. Be aware, however, that angry music will only increase anger. So help select music that offers a way to calm down. (YouTube has a large selection of “relaxing music for children.”)
Deal with sadness – In addition to calming, relaxing music, songs with a sad and expressive tone can help children feel the sadness they may be too embarrassed to show and pushing away. Give them a way to select and play music in a secluded spot so that they can experience the freedom of emotional expression without judgment.
Deal with anxiety – The moment I play calming baby music (“Beatles for Babies”) on a floor of the house, I notice all family members (adults too) buzzing along with what they are doing and calmer in the process. Children can benefit from the calming effects of instrumental music. Experiment with different kinds of music and watch how your family responds.
Express joy – Yes, music can help us express our greatest joys in ways that words just can’t. If we use music to communicate our emotions, our children will learn that music can become an additional voice for their own expression of feelings beyond words.
FACILITATE COOPERATION WITH ROUTINES.
Cleaning Up – Instead of nagging or inciting power struggles, why not have a clean-up song that you play when it’s that time of the day? A song can inspire cooperation as you work together with your children singing a merry tune and getting the job done.
Packing – Whether you are going away on a trip for a night or a week, packing can become quite a chore for parents. And certainly, children have varying abilities to contribute though they can help in some way from preschool age on up. Packing a full suitcase – with a parent checking in to make sure all items are covered – can be accomplished by an eight-year-old with a little guidance. Turn on some happy music and the process might just go more smoothly for all and take your own stress away.
Homework or Summer Enrichment (for some!) – Some children will require silence in order to focus their full attention on homework. But for some, music (instrumental) may actually assist them in their focus. Experiment and know your own child. See if playing an undercurrent of music during homework time might just help her stay on task.
INCREASE SOCIAL AWARENESS.
Diversify – You could use the holidays or times of year to inspire variation in your musical selections. For Cinco de Mayo, perhaps select a Mariachi Band station. Or for St. Patrick’s Day, choose Celtic music. Expose your children to a wide variety of music from multiple cultures and traditions and the whole family will learn and feel enriched by the experience.
CREATE A CALMING, SAFE SPACE.
Household Tone – When you walk into another person’s home, you immediately notice the feel of the new environment – how it smells, looks and sounds. Music or other sounds change the psychological space of a room. We may place have a constant dull drone of talking and news reporting as our typical backdrop from radio or television. Consider how that impacts the environment. And if messages from those sources are particularly fear-laden or negative, how does that impact our children? Turn off those talking sources and turn on an undercurrent of Jazz, Classical, Reggae or World Music and see how it alters the tone of your household. Notice your own mood and how it might be changed by the music. Find the soundtrack for your family’s life that makes all feel safe, calm and “at home.”
Music can act as a powerful force for change in a family’s life. When stress is all around, using music to soothe can offer a significant respite. But even more than that, it can connect us more deeply to who we are and how we connect with our loved ones. Music can be a source of joy as we go about the routines of our lives.
(1) Art Education Partnership. (2011). Music Matters: How Music Education Helps Students Learn., Achieve, and Succeed, Washington, D.C., September.
(2) Hudziak, J. J., et al. (2014). Cortical thickness maturation and duration of music training: Health-promoting activities shape brain development. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol. 53, 11, 1153-1161.
Music Together – A high-quality early childhood music education program with locations all over the United States.
Nutt, A.E. (2015). Music lessons spur emotional and behavioral growth in children, New study says. The Washington Post, January 7.
National Association for Music Education – A national advocacy organization in support of music education.
Originally published on 4/12/17.