Teaching Empathy and Empowerment Through Music

In a time when boards of education try to make dwindling budgets work by cutting staff and eliminating programs, music programs sometimes become budget targets, presumably because their perceived value isn’t as high as that of a core course. Yet recent research at the University of Cambridge suggests that scaling back or eliminating group music activities for students could negatively affect their social development.

According to an article by Edward Ortiz in the San Francisco Classical Voice, a recent study showed that children who participate in group music activities are more likely to develop empathy, one of the highest orders of social skills. The year-long study involved students aged 8 – 11 and found that the control group of students (those who did not participate in group music activities) did not score as well on tests measuring empathy as those students in the experimental group. In such settings, children learn musical concepts (such as rhythm) from one another; one child imitates another’s actions, then another child imitates him, and so on. The children must be in tune with everyone else in the group.

Ortiz also notes that other research supports the conclusion that group music participation facilitates empathy development. Lisa Koops, assistant professor of music education at Case Western Reserve University, studied children aged 4 – 6 in both the United States and the African country of Gambia. She found that students in both groups who participated in musical play developed a sense of empowerment, an attitude that fosters academic success.

It isn’t hard to imagine the value a well-educated, empathetic, and empowered person could bring to the world. But by scaling back or eliminating music programs in the schools, are we sacrificing the education of the whole child by focusing on just that part of him or her that can boost achievement test scores? Joe Landon, of the California Alliance for Arts Education, seems to think that we are. “In the intense focus on academic performance and test scores,” he observed, “we can lose sight of the social and emotional dimensions of learning and child development.”


Special thanks to Ted Gioia, who posted this story on Twitter. Follow him at @tedgioia.


One thought on “Teaching Empathy and Empowerment Through Music

  1. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

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