Music and Rhythm Boosts Empathy in Children

Music and rhythm boosts empathy in children

by Ping Ho, MA, MPH – Founding Director, UCLArts and Healing

Tal-Chen Rabinowitch and colleagues from University of Cambridge found that children ages 8-11 who were randomly assigned to participate in interactive games involving music and rhythm significantly increased in empathy compared to a control group that participated in only non-musical interactive games. The study, published online in Psychology of Music, involved activities that took place weekly over an entire academic year.  Previous research has shown the crucial role that empathy plays in cooperative behavior and resistance to bullying.

To measure empathy, children described their emotions using pictures of faces expressing different emotions after viewing brief movie clips. Correspondence with the emotion of the character in the film reflected higher empathy. They were also asked to state whether or not they agreed with 22 statements, such as “I really like to watch people open presents, even when I don’t get a present myself.”

In this article, Rabinowitch describes the nature of the music and rhythm intervention that led to these outcomes.  They attributed much of the increased empathy to the synchrony required in imitation.  Of note, these music therapy-based activities were cooperative (and not competitive) in nature, and focused on the process of the activities (and not on product or performance).  The investigators  intentionally paired children that were not getting along, stating that “it worked every time.”  They also found that stronger musical backgrounds led to deeper group interactions.

These are all underlying principles of the creative arts therapies professions that offer dual training in the arts and mental health:  art therapy, dance/movement therapy, drama therapy, music therapy, poetry therapy.

The findings of this study reflect what we have observed in the field with similar process-oriented music and rhythm-based activities.  One elementary school counselor, who we trained to use our Beat the Odds curriculum (Social and Emotional Skill Building Delivered in a Framework of Drumming) reported that she put together children in her counseling groups that would not ordinarily get along.  She had them pass around a single small frame drum so that they could play something as they shared their experiences in the group.  The children enjoyed the process and stopped fighting with one another because “you don’t beat up a member of your group”.

Click here to view the Rabinowitch publication.

Click here to view our related UCLA publication.