Mind Matters: Music and Children

10 min read

This series of articles has been adapted from [Mind Matters in Children] by Dr Kenneth Lyen. It delves into both the normal as well as the abnormal functioning of a child’s mind, and gives practical advice on how to manage children’s mental health and problems like ADHD, dyslexia, autism and depression.

Music is everywhere and it affects us emotionally, intellectually and bodily at many levels. It can convey sophisticated complex meanings, excite us with rhythms and harmonies, and soothe troubled spirits. It can unite us into intimate connections with others or allow us to sequester into the personal world of our imagination. Music has incredible powers to evoke memories too. We can declare that of all the arts, music touches our soul.

How does music affect our minds?

Depending on the type of music listened to, researchers have discovered that the outcomes can vary. However, if the music is specially chosen by the test subject, or if pleasant background music is played, the results are more often positive. Listed below are some of the effects that music may have on individuals:

Increases Intelligence: The Mozart Effect

In 1993, a provocative paper was published where 36 college students listened to a piece of Mozart and then tested on their abstract reasoning and spatial abilities. Those who listened to Mozart performed better in a multiple-choice test, a pattern analysis test and a paper folding and cutting test. However, the improvement only lasted less than 15 minutes. The researchers speculated that the enhanced performance was due to the complex music that stimulated the brain’s spatial, analytical and abstract reasoning. Publication of this study led to worldwide bandwagon where parents played Mozart to their children including unborn foetuses inside the womb, in the belief that music could enhance intelligence. Attempts to duplicate the results of this study are inconsistent. More recent neurophysiological studies using neurochemical methods and fMRI show that music does have some physiological effects, which may possibly explain the Mozart Effect on some elements of the IQ test.

More recently, there have been several studies attempting to see if music can have a direct effect on raising intelligence in children. For example, a study was undertaken in a group of children aged 4 to 6 years who were participating in a one-hour computer-based training program with animated projections and colourful cartoons. Half were exposed to music while the other half just heard non-musical sounds. After 4 weeks, the children exposed to music tested higher on verbal IQ tests involving word recall, information analysis, and language-based reasoning. Other studies also showed that children who regularly listened to music or played musical instruments, had a higher verbal and mathematical IQ compared to age-matched controls who were not exposed to music.

Improves Memory

Listening to music can trigger off memories, sometimes with astonishing details. Exactly how it accomplishes this is still speculative. Here are some factors that may contribute to better memory:

Reduces stress

Elevates your mood

Clears up your thinking

Increases alertness

Gives you a rest period

Improves Concentration and Attention

Instrumental music with a simple monotonous beat and a tune that an individual likes, can improve one’s focus. In contrast, loud songs, jazz, or grating heavy beat pop music can be off-putting and distracts one from studying or working. It is thought that background music might prevent environmental noises from becoming distracting, or has a calming effect which enables the person to pay more attention. It may also clear the mind so that one can retain information better.

Increases Creativity

Researchers got subjects to listen to different styles of music: one that made them happy, and another piece of music which made them sad, calm, and anxious respectively. A final group of subjects just sat in silence. The results showed the group that listened to happy music displayed more flexibility in their thinking and found more solutions to their tasks compared to the other groups.

Helps Relieve Anxiety

Studies have shown that when people listen to the music they prefer, or to relaxing music, their levels of psychological stress and anxiety reduce significantly. One study used stressful situations that included normal childbirth and surgery. They found that subjects listening to music had a greater rise in two stress-relieving hormones, namely cortisol and alpha-amylase. It is suggested that when an individual is facing high levels of stress, music might divert the focus away from problem and therefore reduce anxiety.

Music and Language

Language is largely processed in the left brain, whereas music affects nearly all areas of the brain. Music has been shown to enhance language learning. It is thought that music sharpens one’s discernment of pitch and helps in the appreciation of rhythms and the quality or timbre of sounds, which are important in both music and speech.

Provides Coping Mechanisms

Studies have shown that music can change the perception of time passage. Fast tunes seem to speed up time, whereas slow tunes seem to slow it down.

Helps Pain Control

Multiple studies have shown that when patients who have experienced injuries or are recovering from surgery experience less pain when played their favourite songs. They also feel more comfortable, less anxious, less tired, and more energetic. Music alleviates all levels of suffering, and appears to inspire healing.

Learning a Musical Instrument Improves Motor Skills

Playing a musical instrument helps children develop fine motor skills. Dancing to music can also benefit higher levels of arm and leg motor control. These physical actions are stored in long-term memory.

Strengthens Social Bonds

Music enhances socialising by bringing people together either to listen to music or to sing in a choir or play in a band. It is universally part of celebrations, parties, weddings, and concerts. Music increases one’s empathy and enables one to see things from another person’s point of view, also known as the “theory of mind”. When people share the same appreciation of the same musical styles or genres, they show greater social cohesion. Music has also been demonstrated to increase the ”love” or “feel good” hormone, oxytocin, which increases social connections.  

When does a child learn to appreciate music?

We have long known that for language development, there is a critical time at which a child learns to speak, read and write. The same goes for music. Unborn foetuses exposed to music can recognise the same music after birth. Caregivers might sing lullabies or play music to their babies. The styles of music may have some long-term influences in the behaviours and preferred music in later life. For example, one may appreciate music more when it’s played from their culture.

Children develop different aspects of music appreciation at different ages:

– Newborns respond to simple music beats

– 4-months-old: develop metrical structures common in their culture

– 6-months-old: recognise different melodies and melodic contours even when presented at different pitch and tempo

– 9-months-old: spontaneous babbling or singing sounds

– 18-months-old: sings recognisable songs

– 2-years-old: spontaneous singing keeping to a rhythmic beat and starts trying to move or dance to the musical pulse

– 3-years-old: sing songs but the melody may not be too accurate

– 4-years-old: melody increases in accuracy

– 5-years-old: can reproduce songs quite accurately and keep to a steady beat; some may even start improvising or inventing songs

– Teenage years: music may act as a badge of identity and those that prefer certain genres of music might form their own groups

Music education around the world

Image by pch.vector on Freepik

Throughout the world, many schools have withdrawn music and the arts from the formal school curriculum. Several reasons have been given – some say that there are too few jobs open to musicians and artists, while others claim that cuts in school budgets leave no money for arts education. Students and parents may opt to stay clear of music and the arts because it is more difficult to score A’s in these subjects compared to the sciences and mathematics. The net result is that children are deprived of benefits, including enhancing creative thinking, better communication and socialising, relaxation and happiness. It is recommended that schools should put back music and the arts into the official educational syllabus, or put a stronger emphasis on these subjects.


When we hear music, we are often stimulated to produce more music, like singing, playing an instrument, drumming, or we may be fired up into swaying or dancing. Music can make us cheerful or melancholic, it can calm us down when we are agitated, and it can have emotional healing properties. 

Indeed, music can change our lives. That is the power of music.


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2 Margulis EH. The psychology of music. Oxford University Press 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0190640156

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4 Rauscher FH et al. Music and spatial task performance. Nature 1993; 365:611.

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10 Vine B. BrainWorld 2019. Creative listening: how music can boost your creativity.


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16 Garrido S. Frontiers in Psychology 2015; 6: 977. Music and trauma: the relationship between music, trauma, personality and coping style.


17 Phillips CS, Woods HL. Nurse 2021. A musical approach to coping with psychosocial stress.


18 Klassen JA et al. Ambulatory Pediatrics 2008; 8: 117-128. Music for pain and anxiety in children undergoing medical procedures.


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21 Suttie J. Greater Good Magazine 2015. Four ways music strengthens social bonds.



22 Harvard Health Publishing 2019. Using music to tune the heart.



23 Wikipedia. The neuroscience of music.



24 Ginsborg J. HapidzFadli 2022. The psychological results of music on the mind.


25 Dumont E et al. Frontiers in Psychology 2017; 8: 1694. Music interventions and child development. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5626863/

26 Novotney A. Music as medicine.


Written by Dr Kenneth Lyen


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