Music education produces myriad benefits, strengthening kids’ abilities in reading, math, and verbal intelligence. New British research suggests it may also teach something less tangible, but arguably just as important:
The ability to empathize.
The kids in the music group joined weekly hour-long sessions where they played specially designed musical games. Some of the games encouraged the young musicians to get “as rhythmically coordinated as possible,” while others promoted the idea of “shared intentionality” — say, by having kids compose music together.
All the kids took three tests designed to measure their empathy for others. In two test, the children were shown film clips, and after, to gauge their emotional reactions, researchers had them choose among photos of people with different facial expressions. In the third test, the kids were asked to react to statements that helped researchers measure their empathy, such as “I really like to watch people open presents, even when I don’t get a present myself.”
The key result: On the test where the kids agreed or disagreed with those yes-no questions, only those who had played the musical games significantly increased their empathy. Those in the control groups, in fact, began the school year with a slightly higher level of empathy, but by the end of the year, those in the music group has well surpassed past them.
While not definitive, researchers note that the findings provide “more than tentative support” to their theory that intelligently structured group music-making can promote “day-to-day emotional empathy.”
And why wouldn’t it? Making music in an ensemble means learning how to work together toward a common goal. It’s hard to imagine such lessons are forgotten as soon as one walks out of the practice room.