If you watch even a few episodes of The Voice, you will surely hear a heart-touching story about a singer who shared a love of music with a mom or dad.
It’s no accident. The special bonds that children form around playing or singing music with parents last for the rest of their lives. The contestants with the golden voices might be rarities, but the warm buzz created when parents and children do music together seems to be universal.
We suspect we are creating something warm and special when we sing lullabies to infants, but it was less clear that doing music with older children had the same bonding power.
Sandi Wallace and Jake Harwood at the University of Arizona have looked into this potential effect to find out how much music can affect parent-child bonds if it does at all. They found it does.
The most surprising thing their research discovered was that listening and playing music together had an even stronger effect on adolescents than on very young children. About the time tweens and teens begin to push back against parental rules and authority, doing music together becomes more valuable.
"If you have teenagers and you can successfully listen to music together or share musical experiences with them, that has an even stronger effect on your future relationship and the child's perception of the relationship in emerging adulthood," Harwood says.
Wallace and Harwood suspect two things lead to these results. One is that rhythmic activities lead to synchronization and coordination. And that leads to shared empathy. The other is that music strongly evokes emotions, which can be shared and discussed or simply absorbed together.
Brain Benefits, Too
This is one of the newest findings on the benefits of music education in the young. But music is already well proven to be good for the brain.
One of the more interesting projects in this area came from USC. The five-year study was carried out with the help of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Neuroscientists monitored 37 underprivileged children who began receiving music instruction at age 6 or 7 from the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles program at the Heart of LA nonprofit. These students practiced 5-7 hours a week and played in ensembles and groups.
The neurologists compared the brain development of these children to those of 11 children in a community soccer league that did not play instruments and 13 children who had no after-school music or sports activities.
Brain-wave analyses showed that the children who learned music had better focus and were better at processing sound. They had an increase in neuroplasticity—meaning their brains were able to change with learning and responses to the environment.
Assal Habibi, the study’s lead author, says, “The auditory system is stimulated by music. This system is also engaged in general sound processing that is fundamental to language development, reading skills and successful communication.”[i]
In numerous studies, learning music has also been shown to enhance children’s intellectual development. These benefits include better verbal memory and, not surprisingly, a better ear for the sounds of a new language. Music students learn to pronounce new words in a second language more accurately. Music also improved reading ability and correlated to higher IQs as adults.
Those are all accomplishments that parents can value, but there may be subtler and even more valuable benefits.
Music education is also linked to better executive function in the brain.[ii] Executive function is the set of cognitive skills that comprises planning, self-control, self-awareness, emotional control, restraint, time management, organization, and memory.
Back in the 1600s, playwright William Congreve said, “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast.” Today’s research is proving him right.
[ii] Miendlarzewska EA, Trost WJ. How musical training affects cognitive development: rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Front Neurosci. 2014;7:279. Published 2014 Jan 20. doi:10.3389/fnins.2013.00279