The cognitive and social-emotional impact of music

We could all probably pinpoint a certain song that brings back a flood of memories and emotions. And from documentaries such as Alive Inside, and the work of neuroscientists like Kiminobu Sugaya and Ayako Yonetani, we know that music has an impact on various parts of the brain, which is beneficial for studying the effect of music on patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s. 

Music has a variety of benefits for children and youth.

A portion of my own research looks at the benefits of music on children, youth, and adults. While at Penn State, I worked with Dr. Nicole Rosen on a study investigating the benefits of a music appreciation program for children in an ethnically diverse elementary school (24 different countries and 15 different languages represented). We found that listening to various performers gave students a sense of appreciation and excitement, helped them regulate their emotions, and positively impacted the school’s overall culture. Teachers reported that music gave students a common ground for starting conversations and forming friendships–helping to moderate bullying caused from ethnic and racial tension. Students often identified with a particular performer’s style or background, and it allowed them to feel a sense of cultural pride–“Hey, I’m from that country, too!” The music opened up channels of conversation for the sharing of cultural stories, strengthening bonds and increasing empathy in the process. Check out the full report here

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Benefits of music in the early childhood classroom.

The same year, I also had the opportunity to evaluate an innovative program in Erie, Old Songs New Opportunities led by Kelly Armor. OSNO helps refugee and New American women transition into roles as early childhood educators, while sharing the traditions of their native countries via song. The women receive intensive training on child development and ECE pedagogy, followed by an internship at a local Early Childhood Center, where they teach the children and other teachers folk songs from their childhood. It’s a highly successful program, and I could talk for hours about it (in fact, I did talk about it at the Groves Conference on Marriage and Family in 2018).

Of course, one of the most exciting facets of this program is that many of the participants gain employment at their internship sites, benefiting them financially. But an added benefit of the program is the social aspect. Graduates of the program get together for potlucks and reunions and have forged lasting friendships. OSNO introduces them to other women who share their same interests, which in turn helps to alleviate some of the loneliness and isolation that comes with moving to a new country. The gift of friendship is so important in our lives.

The program also helped women navigate language barriers and increased their sense of self-efficacy and confidence. Participants said that the songs also provided healing for the children and for them. Homesickness, loneliness, and discrimination were just some of the struggles participants said were helped through singing and sharing their songs. One woman noted, “If you sing, you don’t hate. Means a lot. That is my life. Gives me power.” Early childhood teachers reported that children and families were also emotionally impacted by the songs and that the program provided a way for families to come together.

CD of folk songs from OSNO (available here)

Music is a core feature of the holiday season–cultural, religious, classical, or whimsical. It can help lift our moods, heal our hearts, and get our bodies moving. Embrace the arts this season. Seek them out in your community. You are sure to be blessed.