Music Boosts Kid’s Brains, Improves Health & Communication – and they’re HAPPY!


Written by Veronika Bradley, Editor for Children’s Health and Safety Association – January 29, 2015 and Republished by Diligencia – April 2019

According to a study from Denmark led by Stine Jacobsen, music therapy can reduce stress levels and improve communication between emotionally neglected children and their parents.  The study also suggests that music therapy offers parents a chance to learn new communication skills, especially in the way they respond to their children.

Jacobsen, who heads the music therapy program at Aalborg University, and her colleagues, recruited eighteen families with children aged 5 to 12 years from a residential family care centre that acts as an alternative to removing children from their parents.  All of the families showed signs of emotional neglect including social dysfunction or delayed emotional development.

“For children experiencing emotional neglect, music therapy can provide them with a chance to be heard and responded to in a safe, fun, and non-threatening context,” said Kate Williams, a music therapist and lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

Music therapy includes the therapist, the parents and the child - playing instruments together, listening to and discussing music or playing musical games.

“Singing together or singing for your infant or toddler can be a very intimate bonding activity and comes naturally for some families. The earlier you start interacting with your child in a meaningful way the more you might see or feel the benefit,” said Jacobsen.

In January 2015, The Washington Post reported on a study conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine who analyzed brain scans of 232 healthy children from six to eighteen years of age who played a musical instrument.   The study concluded that music training not only assists in the development of children’s fine motor skills, but also aids emotional and behavioural maturation as well.

"What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument it accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control,” said James Hudziak, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont and Director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families.

Another study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University and published in the Journal of Neuroscience reported that after completing two years of music lessons, children from neglected neighbourhoods interpreted speech sounds more quickly and precisely.

The study suggests that underprivileged children’s brains have a much harder time processing words and sounds because they hear 30 million fewer spoken words by the time they reach the age of three, compared to cultured counterparts. 

“There is considerable overlap in the circuitry involved in processing language and music,” said the study’s lead author, Nina Kraus, a professor and Director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

Children who play musical instruments are more focused, emotionally intelligent and less stressed. 

The new findings in this study became known as tight budgets led more schools in the poorer districts of United States to cut arts programs and music instruction from their curriculum.

Researchers at Beth Israel Medical Center's Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine conducted a study that included 272 premature babies (32 weeks gestation or older) in 11 mid-Atlantic Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU).  

They examined the effects of three types of music:

  • a lullaby selected and sung by the baby's parents
  • an ‘ocean disc’ (a round instrument, invented by the Remo Drum Company that mimics the sounds of the womb)
  • a gato box (a drum-like instrument used to simulate two-tone heartbeat rhythms)

The instruments were played by certified music therapists who matched the music to the babies breathing and heart rhythm.

Joanne Loewy, the study's lead author, Director of the Armstrong Center and co-editor of the journal Music and Medicine, stated that while the gato box, the Remo ocean disc and singing all slowed a baby's heart rate, singing proved more effective and increased the amount of time babies stayed quietly alert.  

"There's just something about music — particularly live music — that excites and activates the body," says Loewy.

"Music very much has a way of enhancing quality of life and can, in addition, promote recovery."

Psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, who studies Neuroscience of Music at McGill University in Montreal, suggests that while using music through song, sound frequencies and rhythm to treat physical ailments is a relatively new domain, new studies suggest that music improves the body’s immune system function, reduces stress and is more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery.

Researchers found that listening to music and playing music increases the body's production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells, which attack invading viruses and boost the immune system's effectiveness.

Researchers at the University of Alberta performed a trial test with 42 children from three to eleven years of age and found that patients who listened to relaxing music while getting an IV inserted reported significantly less pain and distress.  

"There is growing scientific evidence showing that the brain responds to music in very specific ways," says Lisa Hartling, PhD, Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Alberta and lead author of the study.

"Playing music for kids during painful medical procedures is a simple intervention that can make a big difference."

Additional Resources

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