Music soothes the savage soul, but can it really soothe children?

Parents quickly learn that songs are a great tool for calming children and building a bond, but there is so much more music can do for them. Music isn’t just a great calming tool, it’s also a way to improve the strength of relationships with children. Music can also be effective as a teaching aide, helping kids learn words and patterns. Some have also alleged that music, particularly classical music can play a role in mental development, thanks to the so-called Mozart effect. But how true are these allegations and what effect does music actually have on young children?
Music has always played a large role in my life. Growing up, I remember countless hours in the car listening to the radio and tapes and singing along with my family. I even had my own little record player that played kids’ music as well as an actual player when I was a bit older. As soon as I could start playing an instrument in school, I picked up the clarinet, later the saxophone, and dove into symphonic band, marching band, wind ensemble, and even jazz. I couldn’t get enough. As a parent, I knew music would be a large part of my kids’ lives, but had wondered how it actually affects them.
From day one with our twins, we involved music. In the hospital room, we streamed the Firefly concert over bluetooth with Sirius, introducing the boys to indie rock music early on. While many of our car trips take place with Audiobooks playing, we also often listen to a variety of music over the radio or Spotify, singing along to pop, indie, and even country. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Go Robot has been our morning wake up song since the days of parental leave and continues to be our dance parry tune of choice. Some mornings we enjoy Bon Jovi – the boys are from New Jersey after all – while others we kick it a bit calmer with Billy Joel. Through all of this, we usually carry on with top-of-our voice sing-alongs and ridiculous dance moves, adding to the fun music offers.
The boys don’t just get music at home. At daycare, they have a regular playlist of children’s songs that they listen to during music class as well as during nap time. Thanks to the app provided by the daycare, we can also listen to the same music at home with them. This has proven to us that music can be especially habit-forming, notably when it comes to sleep. When we have a hard time getting the boys to bed or to nap, we can always depend on their lullaby music from the app. While we originally depended on a noise machine to help them sleep, we quickly found much to be more reliable and now thanks to Alexa in their room, they get classical lullabies every night to signal time to calm down and for the day’s fun to end. This came in handy especially when on vacation in Norway where a combination of jet lag and the sun never setting, the boys simply did not want to sleep. With their school music playing from our phones, we got them to bed on time right after dinner and with time for us to enjoy some wine on the balcony of our cruise ship. Music definitely acts as a hypnotic agent.
It also works well just to calm down. In the car especially, their school playlist is a great backup option when they get cranky. Especially early on, before they got more used to the car, their playlist was the only thing that would get them to stop screaming long enough to calm down. This saved us from having to pull over and stop to pull them out of car seats on numerous occasions. We just haven’t found a way to utilize it on flights without putting the whole plane to sleep yet.
With the boys listening to classical music on a nightly basis, I also ended up researching the so-called Mozart effect, a theory that showed children who listen to classical music, especially in their early months, performed better on tests and generally in school later on. The idea is that music, especially the complicated nuanced transitions found in classical music, helps enhance sensory stimulation and leads to stronger central nervous system development. This theory is largely based on a single study done decades ago and since refuted extensively due to bias and poor scientific process, however. No strong tie has since been found in subsequent studies, but I still think it can’t hurt. While it may not demonstrably lead to better grades, the calming influence it appears to have, at least with our children, means they get to bed more reliably, with less of a fight, and stay asleep more consistently, leading to increased sleep, which is in fact shown to be a factor in increased brain development, especially in the first years of life. Plus, it means more time for parents to have to themselves at night, critical for their mental health and stability.
While the Mozart theory is largely debunked; passively playing classical music may not do much, parents who take an active role in listening to music with their children do actually bestow some benefits. Music itself may lead to some social and cognitive development as children learn to recognize patterns in music as well as to look ahead and predict upcoming sounds and words. Parents can improve this effect by singing songs with their kids, encouraging them to sing along or to finish the ends of phrases in songs they know well. Allowing a child to complete the “star” in Twinkle Twinkle may actually help them begin to process speech patterns and phonetics earlier, leading to stronger speech aptitude.
Children also benefit from parents singing to them much as they do from parents reading. Beyond the bond this time helps build, it also provides and opportunity to practice attention span development as well as imitation of words, sounds, and tones. Many parents know that spending five to ten minutes a day reading with their children has huge developmental benefits as children age, but spending a similar time singing can have very similar effects. Songs are a bit more varied than reading, so tend to grab attention for longer, helping to build attention spans and cognitive processing. Singing together also allows children to imitate the sounds and words of songs, helping them build a vocabulary early on. Studies also show that children with higher vocabularies when entering school tend to outperform others throughout their academic careers. A few rounds of B-I-N-G-O together may give children a head-start on learning and development.
Music is such a critical part of young children’s development and tends to be an under appreciated tool for parents. Parents sing for infants and new borns, but often forget about the benefits as children become toddlers. The benefits to parent and child alike are numerous from helping to calm cranky kids to fostering growth and development, so parents should find more time for singing together. Whether it’s a dance party before bed, a family sing along in the car, or some classical music during bedtime, music really should be a fundamental part of every child’s life.

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