Music is intertwined with human society, and it has been for millennia. It is a deeply important aspect of how our brains develop and how we communicate.

Parents have long understood that providing musical education for their children (teaching them to sing, play an instrument, read music, and compose) allows for wonderful creative endeavors to improve their child’s thinking and learning skills.

At some stages, even just listening to music in the background can change how children perceive the world, process stimuli, manage stress, learn, and think about what they have learned. In some instances, this process can differ by age group, but some musical effects remain strong for decades.

How Different Age Groups Are Affected by Music

Many people associate music and children with the Mozart effect, in which having children listen to background classical music — specifically Mozart due to his compositions' complexity — can improve a child's ability to learn a task and perform it.

While there are several studies among different age groups and childhood needs regarding the truth of this effect, there are also several studies suggesting that other approaches to using music to learn, besides just passive listening, can improve cognitive skills, including learning, focus, and task completion.

Music can greatly influence children and their learning ability in several crucial stages of development, but how this occurs is complex.

Infants

Newborns and young babies quickly learn from their parents and surrounding adults. They absorb lots of information about making sounds and forming words, seamlessly and rapidly learning language.

One study examined behaviors of four-week-old infants using tongue protrusion as a sign that the baby enjoyed a certain auditory experience. Researchers used the tongue to determine whether such young children could understand and emotionally appreciate music versus silence.

They alternated music with silence and found that the infants protruded their tongues more while music was played. The babies protruded their tongues to music even when adults, especially their parents, were not present, so the behavior was not an attempt to mimic the faces the child saw.

Results suggested children had a positive emotional reaction to the music, so researchers suggested music could play an important part in children's emotional development and stress management.

Preschool- & Kindergarten-Aged Children

A study on kindergarten-aged children found that the group showed more creative behaviors and performed better on cognitive tasks when exposed to different types of music.

While much literature has been devoted to the positive impact of classical music on children's minds, the study of Japanese 5-year-old children found that the children drew for a longer period after they had listened to and sung along with familiar children's songs compared to just passively listening to Mozart or Albinoni. When children participated in music, not just listened to it, their drawings exhibited greater creativity and technical proficiency.

Another study involving preschool-aged children used two interactive computer programs to train participating children in two different creative fields — one was for music, and the other was for visual art. They trained with the programs for 20 days. At the end of the training period, 90 percent of children in the music group exhibited higher verbal intelligence.

Elementary School Children

A study examining the Mozart effect in upper-primary school-aged children (around 4th or 5th grade) found that students who listened to either Mozart or Bach during a paper folding task (PFT) performed better than the same age group attempting the PFT without background music.

A 2010 study stated, however, that earlier research on the effect of music on children did not consider how performance was impacted. This study found that calming music improved performance in children ages 10 to 12 on both a memory task and an arithmetic task. When unpleasant, aggressive, or emotionally arousing music was played, the group performed worse.

The researchers concluded that performance correlated more to arousal and mood than previous studies suggested. Rather than having a direct effect on the brain, music had an indirect impact on learning and performance by changing how mood and stress were experienced.

Young Adults & College Students

The brain continues to develop throughout high school and college, and music can play an important part in cognitive abilities.

One study of 56 university students involved two tasks (a spatial processing task and a linguistic processing task) found that faster-paced Mozart selections improved the speed of comprehending and completing both tasks.

This suggests that the Mozart effect might work for several age groups, not just very young children.

Special Education

Music can also reduce stress and improve learning and focus in children with special education needs.

An older study from 1999 reported on the Mozart effect in boys ages 12 and older with special needs or emotional and behavioral difficulties. The group's blood pressure, body temperature, and pulse rate were measured.

At the same time, the music was adulterated slightly to focus on specific aspects, to determine which part of the tracks had a positive effect on the children's psychology and physical stimulus. The students all displayed improvements in physical coordination, less stress and frustration, and reduced disruptive and aggressive behavior.

While reports of the Mozart effect's benefits on all children may be overblown, the impact on children with special education needs is strong.

Benefits of a Music Education

Music is an important part of life for children, and they should receive as wide a range of music education as possible. These are just a few of the benefits closely associated with adding music to a child's life:

Build Your Child's Language Skills

One study suggests that experiencing music, through learning an instrument or listening to music, associates musical structure with grammar rules, making language acquisition easier. Hierarchical pitch and tempo can mimic grammar in language, which may stimulate that area of the brain.

When children learn musical instruments, their literacy is improved. However, a 2014 study reported that children must actively participate in their music class to experience benefits in learning and cognition. The study found that even in a group of motivated students, small variations like level of class participation or attendance, could change how strong the impact of the music class was on their neural processing.

Since the 1990s, studies have shown at least a correlation between structural brain changes and listening to music. Changes were found in the frontal lobe, corpus callosum, language and auditory processing areas, and parts of the brain involved in motor function.

Some studies causally link listening to music with improvements in language processing, so even passive involvement in music can strengthen some parts of a child's learning ability.

Enhance Your Child's Math Skills

Musical scores are built with mathematical concepts. Every measure of music is sliced and diced into intervals, and students who learn to play or compose music dive deep into the math.

Researchers say music students develop strong math skills, even when researchers exclude factors like race and social class. The act of participating in music education helps them do better in math.

Develop Spatial-Temporal Skills

Playing a musical instrument requires a great deal of eye-hand coordination. Children must read music on the sheet, interpret it with their minds, and transmit that to their lungs, fingers, and lips.

It's a very complicated relationship, and the more children practice, the stronger their skills grow.

Help Your Child Succeed in School

Music can't necessarily make your child smarter. Lessons can help a child build skills, but even the most dedicated musician isn't smarter than peers.

A musical education can help your child practice math and language skills in new ways. That could translate into better performance in the classroom.

Give Your Child a Healthy Outlet

Music impacts mood and stress. Managing these arousal experiences can help one focus and learn regardless of age.

The more your child learns to manage emotions, the better your child can handle the stress of school.

family eating at restaurant

Tips for Parents

Understanding how music could help a child is important. Adding music to a child's life in an intentional way is even better.

Here are a few tips families can use to help add a little music to a child's life:

Keep the Music Playing

The average person spends about 27 hours per week listening to music. If you're listening to music through headphones, in the car, or in some other private space, you could be depriving your child of the chance to share music with you.

Find a radio station you all enjoy, and keep it playing in the background at home. Instead of gathering around the television in the evening, try spinning records. Hold a family dance party to make listening fun.

Invest in Musical Instruments

Make it easy for your children to become musicians. While passively listening to music can confer some benefits to reduced stress and improved mood, true structural brain change appears more often with active participation in music.

If you have the space, bring home a large instrument like a piano or set of keyboards. If money is tight, look for low-cost options like these:

  • Harmonicas
  • Recorders
  • Tambourines
  • Xylophones

Look Into Music Schools

Many children can't get a musical education in schools. In Oregon, for example, about one public school in seven offers no music classes.

If your child can't sign up in a classroom, reach out to your community. Your local church might have a children's choir your child could join. Or you might find a local family willing to give your child piano lessons.

Be a Role Model

Normalize playing with music. Sing along with your favorite song, tap on the piano whenever you walk by, or invest in adult education classes. When your children see you participate, they may be willing to do the same.

Music, Learning & Children FAQs

How can music help children learn?

Researchers say music can help boost a child's math and language skills. And music could help to boost a child's sense of focus and emotional control, which could make enduring a long test or boring class easier. While music can't necessarily make your child smarter, it could make your child perform better in school.

Why is music key to your child's development?

While music can help your child boost core skills, it's also an artistic and collaborative endeavor. A child who learns to play music expresses a hidden point of view. Playing in a band or ensemble setting means sharing that vision with others.

Why is music an important part of a child's education?

A music class could be the high point of your child's day. For some children, participating in a music class is simply fun and engaging. They may believe they're just playing, but all the while, they're really learning.

References

Children's Brains Develop Faster With Music Training. (June 2016). USC News: University of Southern California.

The Cognitive and Academic Benefits of Music to Children: Facts and Fiction. (August 2006). Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology.

Exploration or Imitation? The Effect of Music on 4-Week-Old Infants' Tongue Protrusions. (January 2006). Infant Behavior and Development.

Exposure to Music and Cognitive Performance: Tests of Children and Adults. (January 2007). Sempre: Society for Education, Music, and Psychology Research.

Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function. (October 2011). The Association for Psychological Science.

The Effects of Background Music on Primary School Pupils' Task Performance. (July 2010). Educational Studies Journal.

The Mozart Effect and Primary School Children. (October 2003). Sempre: Society for Education, Music, and Psychology Research.

Background Music for Cognitive Performance. (June 2010). Perceptual and Motor Skills.

The Effect of Background Music on Learning. (October 1999). Sempre: Society for Education, Music, and Psychology Research.

Music Acquisition: Effects of Enculturation and Formal Training on Development. (November 2007). Cell Press: Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain. (December 2014). TIME.

Can Music Influence Language and Cognition? (December 2009). Contemporary Music Review.

Study Shows Strong Links Between Music and Math, Reading Achievement. (November 2020). Science Daily.

Weekly Time Spent Listening to Music in the United States from 2015 to 2019. (December 2021). Statista.

Music Education Inequities Deepening During the Pandemic. (December 2021). OPB.