One theory for the emergence of music during human evolution is that it strengthens the bond between people. Sharing a musical experience synchronizes movements, and oscillatory brain activity between the people involved. This may support feelings of empathy, narrowing the gap between individuals.
How do shared music experiences influence social behavior? Could music be used as a method for increasing the quality of interaction, help individuals understand each other’s feelings and share a heightened sense of connectedness? In recent years, studies showing positive effects of music on social behavior have began accumulating. Studies with children are particularly interesting, as childhood entails intense development of a wide range of socio-emotional and cognitive skills. It seems that many types of musical play can indeed influence social behavior in infants as young as five months, as well as augment the developmental course of social skill attainment.
A study published in 2010 showed that 4-year olds who took part in joint music making showed greater spontaneous cooperation and helped others more, when compared to peers who took part in a similar play session, but with no music. Along the same lines, a study published in 2014 found that infants who were bounced to a musical rhythm in synchrony with the experimenter showed more helping behavior towards the experimenter than infants who were bounced out of sync. The authors of these studies speculate that music might increase altruism and helping behavior specifically because synchrony between individuals, either through coordination of song and action like in the first article or through coordination of movement like in the second, highlights shared intention and the perception of individuals not as ‘me’ but ‘we’.
If short bouts of musical play influence immediate social behavior, could music lessons then have an impact on development of social skills? A study, published in 2012, showed that 6-month olds who took active music classes for six months (moving, singing, playing percussive instruments together with caretakers) developed communicative gestures and social behavior more quickly than infants who took part in passive musical lessons involving only listening to music. Therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, active participation and interaction is needed for development of social skills. But what is the role of music in these augmentations? Could a training program for social skills function just as well without music?
A recently published study shows that there is indeed something special about music. The researchers randomly assigned 15-18 month olds into musical and control groups. The toddlers in the music group took part in interactive musical activities that were designed to demonstrate and teach the children about basic emotions. The toddlers in the control group took part in similar interactive training on basic emotions, but without music. The toddlers’ skills in perceiving emotions in music and understanding the link between emotions and action were tested before the onset of training and after 14 weeks.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but how exactly does one test whether toddlers have learned new emotional skills? As researchers can’t use a multiple choice tests with 15 month olds, they have to get creative. One way to see whether a toddler has learned a rule, for instance, about how musical characteristics are associated with certain emotions, is to measure reactions to violations of that rule. In the study, the perception of emotion in music was measured by presenting a video of an individual with a happy or sad expression on her face while either sad or happy music was playing. The amount of time that toddlers spent looking at the video was measured. After 14 weeks of training, the toddlers in the music group showed significantly longer looking times in situations where the music did not match the emotional expression of the individual in the video, indicating surprise and detection of the violation of the learned rule. The looking times of toddlers in the control group did not change. This means that the toddlers in the music group had learned to match sad expressions to sad musical features but the toddlers in the control group had not.
But what about other emotional skills, not tied to music? Understanding emotion and action relations was tested in the study by an inventive procedure. The toddlers looked at an actor who was placed on a stage with two identical teddybears. First, the actor expressed positive or negative emotions towards one of the teddybears (by looking at the teddy bear and saying nice or negative things about it). The actor then took one of the teddybears. After training, the toddlers in the music group had significantly longer looking times in situations where the actor took the “wrong” teddybear, meaning the teddy bear towards which she did not express liking or towards which she expressed negative feelings. A longer looking time indicated that the children were surprised at the choice that did not match the previously displayed emotion towards the teddy bear. This means that the children in the music group learned the general relationship between emotion and action, but the toddlers in the control group did not. Why would development of these skills be more supported by musical interaction than non-musical interaction? The researchers suggest that the answer again is synchrony - synchronized movements typical of musical play help in creating a sense of connectedness and results in more engagement, therefore becoming powerful in helping children learn about emotions.
The articles above describe how powerful musical play can be in developing emotional skills. What about traditional music lessons? Can taking part in instrument training augment the development of socio-emotional skills? A recent paper reports the first evidence of the effects of music training on the development of social skills. The researchers followed the development of 8 year olds taking part in either an elementary school providing weekly, mandatory music lessons (learning to play the ukulele) or a regular elementary school with no music lessons. Emotion comprehension, prosocial skills, and sympathy were measured with tests and questionnaires before the onset of training and after 10 months. The results showed that music training was associated with development of prosocial skills, but only in the children who had poor social skills before the onset of training. Therefore, music training may support development of social skills in children with below average starting level.
Indeed, according to a recent Cochrane review, music therapy seems to be a moderately effective addition to standard rehabilitation of autism that typically is characterized by difficulties in social skill development. For example, in a randomized controlled study with 3-5 year old children with autism, researchers showed that improvisational music therapy was more effective than play therapy in increasing the children’s engagement with other people and their emotional responsiveness. Another recent randomized controlled trial showed that an intervention that included active music-making between the child with autism and her caretaker, supported social engagement more than a regular intervention program. Further research is needed to investigate and confirm the effectiveness of music therapy, as well as explore the specific role of music in the rehabilitation of social difficulties in autism.
In summary, musical play seems to be powerful in increasing interpersonal synchrony, which may underlie cooperation, altruism, and better empathy and understanding. During childhood, music can be used to strengthen the bond between the child and the caretaker, which may result in more efficient learning of social skills. Even regular instrument lessons can support the attainment of social skills in those who have difficulties in learning them. Music may have emerged and prevailed during human evolution due to just this unique capacity - to bring people together and promote empathy, that is, as a context for learning the most important skills humans have needed to survive.
written by ketki karanam
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