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 – learning 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 forcing children to 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 is an important part of life for children, and they should receive as wide a range of music education as possible.

Music can have a great influence on children and their learning ability in several crucial stages of development, but how this occurs is complex. For example, 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.

Additionally, music impacts mood and stress, and managing these experiences of arousal can help one focus and learn, regardless of age.

  • 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 – to learn whether such young children could understand and emotionally appreciate music versus silence. Researchers alternated music with silence, and they 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. This suggested they were emotionally aroused in a positive way, so music can play an important part in the emotional development and stress management of children.
  • Kindergarten-aged children: A study on kindergarten-aged children found that the group showed more creative behaviors and performed better on cognitive tasks when they had been 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 of time 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 as well.Another study involving preschool-aged children used two interactive computer programs to train participating children in two different creative fields – one was for music, 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, though, that earlier research on the effect of music on children did not consider how performance was impacted. This study found that, in children ages 10 to 12 years old, calming music improved performance on both a memory task and on an arithmetic task. When unpleasant, aggressive, or emotionally arousing music was played, the group performed worse on both tasks.The researchers concluded that performance was more correlated to arousal and mood than previous studies suggested. Rather than having a direct effect on the brain, music had an indirect effect on learning and performance by changing how mood and stress were experienced.
  • Young adults and college students: The brain continues to develop throughout high school and college, so 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 who have special education needs. An older study, from 1999, reported on the Mozart Effect in boys ages 12 and older who had been identified with special needs or emotional and behavioral difficulties. The group’s blood pressure, body temperature, and pulse rate were measured while 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 reductions in 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.
  • The importance of participation: When children learn musical instruments, their literacy is improved; however, a 2014 study reported that children must actively participate in their music class to receive benefits to their 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.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, such as singing, dancing, and playing instruments.

Numerous studies since the 1990s 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.

What Parents Should Do

The hyperbole around the Mozart Effect is changing, but listening to calming instrumental music – classical and many other genres – can have a great, positive impact on children in many age groups. Starting in infancy, playing complex but happy music can reduce stress and improve language acquisition. Throughout childhood, music can ease stress, improve learning, and may play a role in improved task performance, especially when fine motor skills are involved.

Learning a musical instrument, singing along with songs, and even dancing have also improved cognition and learning in children, particularly in young children. While not every child will want to learn an instrument or have talent for an instrument, parents can start young by singing along with music, including children’s songs. By showing that music has a participatory aspect, parents can improve their child’s learning and thinking through encouragement to participate.

From mood regulation to learning new languages, music has a strong impact on children’s learning, thinking, and communication.