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Making Music Together Increases Kids’ Empathy

• April 23, 2012 • 7:44 PM

New research from the U.K. suggests certain types of group music-making can help kids develop empathy

Music education produces myriad benefits, strengthening kids’ abilities in reading, math, and verbal intelligence. New British research suggests it may also teach something less tangible, but arguably just as important:

The ability to empathize.

In a year-long program focused on group music-making, 8- to 11-year old children became markedly more compassionate, according to a just-published study from the University of Cambridge. The finding suggests kids who make music together aren’t just having fun: they’re absorbing a key component of emotional intelligence.

The research team, led by Tal-Chen Rabinowitchof the university’s Centre for Music and Science, studied 52 girls and boys. The kids, chosen from four British schools, were randomly assigned to either a music group, or one of two control groups.

The kids in the music group joined weekly hour-long sessions where they played specially designed musical games. Some of the games encouraged the young musicians to get “as rhythmically coordinated as possible,” while others promoted the idea of “shared intentionality” — say, by having kids compose music together.

In the simplest game, “Mirror-Match,” each child repeated a short musical phrase after it was played by a peer. This kind of imitation is believed to “promote the sharing of mental states” — a dynamic found in a 2010 study of 4-year-olds.

Children in the first control group also met for one hour each week, and played games designed to cultivate empathy through imitation and shared intentions, but their activities involved words and stories rather than music. The kids in the second control group didn’t take part in any special activities.

All the kids took three tests designed to measure their empathy for others. In two test, the children were shown film clips, and after, to gauge their emotional reactions, researchers had them choose among photos of people with different facial expressions. In the third test, the kids were asked to react to statements that helped researchers measure their empathy, such as “I really like to watch people open presents, even when I don’t get a present myself.”

The key result: On the test where the kids agreed or disagreed with those yes-no questions, only those  who had played the musical games significantly increased their empathy. Those in the control groups, in fact, began the school year with a slightly higher level of empathy, but by the end of the year, those in the music group has well surpassed past them.

Results on the groups that picked photos of facial expressions were more mixed: kids in the music and control groups showed similar increases in empathy over the year. But in a second, similar test administered only at year’s end, the music group scored much higher in empathy than the control groups. (The kids in the weekly sessions that did not include music had basically the same scores as those who received no special training, suggesting the empathy-enhancing games require music to be effective.)

While not definitive, researchers note that the findings provide “more than tentative support” to their theory that intelligently structured group music-making can promote “day-to-day emotional empathy.”

And why wouldn’t it? Making music in an ensemble means learning how to work together toward a common goal. It’s hard to imagine such lessons are forgotten as soon as one walks out of the practice room.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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