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Why Live Music Matters

Working with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute of Music, WolfBrown has just published “Why Making Music Matters,” a short, illustrated report summarizing research on the ways in which making live music together can impact the lives of young children and their families:

Grow brains and bodies: Music, especially if you include tapping, clapping, bouncing, and dancing, can develop fine and large motor control. Even simple games, songs, and back-and-forth play build brain and body coordination. If older children play an instrument, these kinds of changes continue. All this builds important connections across the many regions of the brain: just think about all the motor, perceptual, and cognitive skills it takes to play even a simple round.

Build intimacy: Young children build some of the most important relationships in their lives as infants and toddlers. If they are lucky enough to have caring and responsive caregivers, they develop a sense of security — feeling that they will be followed, cared for, and protected, even as they explore new activities, take risks, make mistakes, and recover. Music can support these intimate exchanges. For example, when caregivers sing lullabies, they use pitch, rhythm, and lyrics to soothe, teach language, communicate hope and affection, and provide security as a child goes from wakefulness to sleep.

Communicate and imagine: Humans are wired to be sensitive to sound patterns. Even before babies speak, their babbling and sound play helps to develop the neural pathways necessary for listening and speaking. Infants who hear language directed and responsive to them babble more and have larger vocabularies as toddlers. When they hear and see others singing as a part of daily life, young children quickly pick up the habit, using sound to explore new ways to understand or describe the world around them.

Share and manage their feelings: During their early years, children learn how to express and manage their feelings. They also figure out how to read other people’s expressions and feelings, grasping how other minds work. Through music, children can invent games, songs, and stories that help them harness their feelings. Researchers observing music and movement classes have documented that participation in arts activities correlates with positive emotion for preschoolers and facilitates their ability to regulate their emotions. It may be that experience with musical concepts like stop/start, slowing down/speeding up, and verse/chorus provides children with the motivation to direct and modulate their behavior.

Learn to be with others: In their first five years, young children figure out how to communicate and interact with others their age. Music, with its tempo and rhythm, verses and choruses, provides clear structures that help children to learn the rules and routines for being together. A kindergartener has to watch and listen as she plays a percussion piece with her class, while at home, music can be a way to practice cooperation or to connect across generations. Music can also model the structure of social interaction for children with histories of trauma or conditions like autism.

Create community and belonging: In their earliest years, children learn the languages and accents they hear at home; they absorb the songs and stories of their community, and along with them, beliefs and values. Currently in the U.S., one in four children has at least one immigrant parent, and early childhood care and preschools are a key intersection of immigration and education, past and present. In these settings children learn who “belongs” and who is “an outsider”. Sound play and music can create a space where young children, with the help of families, and teachers, knit together new identities that combine their first languages, and culture with U.S.-anchored identities. When day-care and preschools feature the music of multiple cultures and homelands, they model an inclusive and connected world.

Experience joy: Positive emotions are among humans’ most vital resources: they attract others, lift our mood, and protect us against sadness and even illness. Live music is a remarkable carrier for delight and excitement. In a world where families and children experience trauma from violence, war, and natural disasters, music (along with other arts) can play a powerful role in their healing. It is no mistake that in refugee camps around the world, singing, dance, and play are vital tools in generating health and hope.

These are all benefits of live music-making with others. While digital musical games and videos on tablets and TVs certainly grab and hold children’s attention, they are not the same. Humans, especially young ones, learn from other people best: a responsive, reactive, and surprising partner is “the best toy in the store.”

The take-away: Children remind us that live arts, in the presence of others, matter.

Want to learn more? Want to share this research with others? Want to link to this booklet in your next concert program? Download the full report at

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