Exposure to music can makes kids more empathetic, a recent study has found.
The University of Cambridge research, though preliminary, may affect how school systems, policymakers and educators view music and its relationship to a child's development.
The yearlong study, conducted in the U.K. by researchers Tal-Chen Rabinowitch and Ian Cross, both members of the music faculty at Cambridge, found that children between 8 and 11 years old who engaged in group musical activity were more likely to develop empathy than those in control groups where music was not included.
The study defined empathy as a child having an understanding of the emotional state of another. A total of 52 children 28 girls and 24 boys were split, randomly, into three groups. One met weekly and was immersed in interactive musical games and was composed of 13 girls and 10 boys. A second group undertook activities involving the use of written texts and drama, but no music. Another group had no interactive activities at all.
The study found that children involved in musical group interactions scored higher on an empathy test that was given to all the children both before and after the activities.
"Analyzing these two domains theoretically, led us to hypothesize that certain processes and underlying cognitive mechanisms should be naturally shared between musical group interaction and empathy," said Rabinowitch, the lead researcher.
Some involved with arts education find the study intriguing for how it underscores the effect the arts has on young students.
"In the intense focus on academic performance and test scores, we can lose sight of the social and emotional dimensions of learning and child development," said Joe Landon, executive director of the California Alliance for Arts Education.
"In fact, the two are related," Landon said. "Quality arts programs have the potential to empower and engage students in ways that can promote learning across the board. Students who have a positive sense of themselves are more likely to embrace learning new things and find success in school."
The study confirms what Sacramento Philharmonic tubist Julian Dixon believes about the benefits of group music activity. Dixon leads such activities as part of the orchestra's outreach programs.
"With music I find kids develop more understanding, and it makes them more empathetic," Dixon said.
The most telling example happened last April during the orchestra's "See the Music, Hear the Art" outreach program at Sacramento's Mustard Seed School a school established to meet the needs of homeless children. It was there that Dixon said he encountered Elijah, a 9-year-old with a reputation for being disruptive in group settings. He had been street-toughened by living in transitional housing. Dixon led him in a group activity.
"I began seeing his face soften. It became more childlike in expression," Dixon said. "Later, he offered to carry my stuff to my car. He reached out."
In the University of Cambridge study, music activity stressed what researchers called "entrainment," wherein players become rhythmically attuned to each other during the course of the musical games. Imitation and sharing of musical goals were key. Imitation games demanded that one child do something musically, with the next child imitating it, and the next imitating the imitation. These happened in mostly unstructured, improvisational situations. Each child playing a musical instrument also had to attend to other children.
Rabinowitch wanted to establish whether strengthening or refining those activities in a group context would also focus and strengthen them in an everyday context.
"Empathy is considered to be a precursor of pro-social behavior, a crucial ingredient in our daily social lives," said Rabinowitch. "Empathy keeps us 'together,' connected, and aware for each other."
To establish whether the children developed empathy, the researchers gave children a 22-question test called the Bryant's Index of Empathy for Children and Adolescents. The test asked hypothetical questions such as "If you saw a friend had fallen over, would you go over and help them up, soothe them, or laugh?" A nonverbal test of matching faces and a memory task game also were part of the testing.
"Overall, the capacity for empathy in children that participated in our musical group interaction program significantly increased," said Rabinowitch.
It was an effect the research team did not see in the children from control groups which included children who participated in equivalent sessions of games and special tasks, but without any music.
In the nonmusical groups, the researchers used drama and storytelling in similar ways in a group activity setting. The expectation was that children who participated in the control-games groups would also show an enhanced capacity for empathy following the program.
"Such an effect was not found, but still, we're very hesitant to draw definitive conclusions, as the sample size of this particular group was small," said Rabinowitch. "While this is a preliminary study, replication of its findings with larger groups in different cultural contexts would have significant implications for the value of music in education."
The research holds a certain interest for Ross Thompson, professor of psychology at UC Davis. "It's a well-designed investigation," he said. "The results are not strong, as the authors recognize, but they lend support to the idea that attentiveness to another's feelings and goals can generalize to other situations involving sensitivity to another's feelings."
Thompson believes the research raises interesting questions, given that much of musical instruction nowadays is geared to individual performance such as a piano recital rather than for improvisational group performance.
"The characteristics of empathy-promoting musical components may not be common in the typical experience of young children learning a musical instrument," Thompson said.