Want a Less Fussy, Easier-to-Soothe, Kinder Child? Make Music!

Learning to make music helps babies communicate better and amps up empathy in older kids.

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Want a happier, easier to calm infant and a more empathetic child?  Three new studies suggest that teaching even the youngest children to make music with others can not only reduce distress and make infants smile and laugh more but also enhance brain development and boost empathy.

For two of the studies, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and Developmental Science, researchers led by Laurel Trainor at Canada’s McMaster University studied 50 six-month-old infants.  One group and their parents were given a weekly hour-long music class for six months. It involved learning specific lullabies, singing together, rhythmic movement and percussion instruments, with repetition both in class and at home.

The class was based on the method originated by Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese violinist who believed that starting musical education early and including parents as teachers would foster joy, character and discipline.

Another group was enrolled in a class in which they and their parents listened to Baby Einstein CDs while engaging in non-musical play with books and toys, then listened to the CDs again at home.  The rest were not enrolled in special music classes.

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By age 1, the babies who were actively taught musical skills were better able to distinguish between music which was played in key and music that included “off” notes, as measured by their preference for continuing to listen to it.  They also showed increased brain activity while listening to music compared to the groups that hadn’t received particular music-making instruction.

But what’s probably of greatest interest to parents of fussy babies are the changes seen in non-musical skills. The actively-trained infants were less distressed by frustration, showed less anxiety about new experiences, smiled and laughed more and were easier to soothe.  The researchers write, “the active classes led to more positive parent-infant social interactions compared to the passive classes.”

Moreover, the actively-trained infants also had better early communication development, as seen in activities like pointing and waving “bye-bye.” These indicators of shared attention between the infant and other people are important precursors to the development of speech.

Shared attention is also critical to the development of what researchers call “theory of mind,” which is the thinking required to understand that other people have their own distinct thoughts, intentions and feelings.  Theory of mind is the cognitive part of empathy; its development is often delayed or altered in autism.

Because playing music with others requires shared attention and the ability to read their cues about rhythmic and melodic direction, learning these skills seems likely to enhance the ability to empathize. Another study, this time in older children, explored this question directly.

Researchers led by Tal-Chen Rabonowitch at Cambridge University in England studied 52 children, ages 8 to 11.  One group was enrolled for at least three months in a weekly hour-long class involving musical games, like improvising rhythms together or mirroring or matching a short melody played by someone else. A second group involved similar types of games — for example, repeating or matching a sentence said by another child — but without music.  The third group simply attended their ordinary school classes.

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Researchers found significant increases in empathy in the children who made music together.  They were not only better able to understand and mirror the emotions felt by actors in a short film clip they watched, but they also improved in their empathetic responses to statements like “It makes me sad to see a girl who can’t find anyone to play with” or “I really like to watch people open presents even when I don’t get a present myself.” Those changes were not seen in the other groups.

Gary Marcus, director of the NYU Center for Language and Music, who was not associated with the research, said the study is “intriguing,” but added that “details of the curricula might matter.  Some earlier research suggested that drama lessons might actually be more effective than music lessons in developing empathy.”

Whether it’s drama or music, however, research is demonstrating just how valuable arts education is to children — unfortunately at a time when it is becoming less and less accessible due to financial pressures on parents and school budget cuts.  Fortunately, getting down on the floor with your toddler and banging out some rhythms on pots and pans doesn’t take any money — and it might actually spare you more headaches than it creates.

(MORE: Can You Learn to Play an Instrument at 40? Q&A with Psychologist Gary Marcus)

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.