Playing music together “boosts empathy”

Regularly playing music together in groups boosts empathy skills amongst children, a new academic study suggests.

A new research report, carried out by the University of Cambridge over one year, has compared children who played weekly music-based games with those who did not. The researchers concluded that the musical group scored higher in end-of-year tests of how well they recognised other people’s emotions.

Children aged eight to 11 years took part in the study, which included musical activities such as singing and clapping games, as well as the learning of musical instruments.

When the children were tested, they were given a questionnaire that assessed their compassion levels and their responses to emotions shown by actors in videos. Children in the music groups performed “significantly better” than those in the non-music groups, the researchers said.

The differences are attributed to the musical activities, which allowed the children to experience what they describe as “shared intentionality” and “mutual honesty” – an emotional affinity with others through a common aim and experience.

Strengthening emotional intelligence

Here at Children & the Arts, the findings further underline the importance of arts and music education in schools. Interestingly, the researchers have since recommended that music group sessions could be a useful way for schools to strengthen children’s emotional intelligence by improving their empathy with others.

Commenting on the report, Tal-Chen Rabinowitch from the Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge, said: “Increased ability to empathise may lead to altruistic behaviour that benefits educational environments such as patience and cooperativeness.

“Previous studies have shown that children who score higher on an empathy scale are more likely to help others being bullied, for example.”

Children & the Arts has long recognised how music and the arts can make a positive contribution to young people’s lives, particularly in areas of low-arts access. This year, one of our key projects, MusicQuest, has linked local primary school children with St David’s Concert Hall in Cardiff. During May 2012, more than 1,400 children were introduced to classical orchestral music – some for the very first time – by a superb concert performed by the Philarmonia Orchestra. (You can read more here.)

The bigger issue

Beyond the UK, it is interesting to note that there are numerous studies – particularly in the US – which confirm the benefits of arts involvement at a young age: including skills development, self-confidence and attainment.

For example, in one study, US researchers discovered that children taking piano lessons significantly improved their spatial-temporal IQ scores (important for mathematical reasoning) compared with those who received computer lessons or no musical tuition at all. Previous studies, such as a 2006 report from VH1 Save the Music showed that musically trained children performed better in memory tests linked to literacy skills, verbal memory and IQ.

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