How Music Teaches Us to Care About Others

My husband and I met playing open mic nights in college, and spent most of our 20s as part of an Americana band, spending hours in a suburban travelling up and down the East Coast playing shows that started no earlier than 10:00 pm. Though the gigs have gotten significantly earlier, music has continued to be a huge part of our life as adults and parents, playing together as a duo at restaurants, breweries, wedding cocktail hours, and kid’s concerts.

Having children resulted in a lot of people assuming that our musical lives would be put on hiatus. We are often met with incredulous “You guys are still playing?” comments when we mention our gigs. But if anything, we’ve found that having kids has given us even more impetus to maintain our relationship with music, and to help develop the relationship our kids have with music themselves.

Any parent that has brought a child to a music class or a library singing hour knows that there is something magical that happens inside those doors. I never really thought much about it as it was happening, but as I attended the public library week after week with my first child, I watched this group of little babies morf from solitary observers to engaged, confident, connected toddlers. There was definitely something bigger going on than just learning to sing “The Wheels on the Bus.” There was an actual shift happening in these kids that I figured must have some sort of developmental theory behind it, so I looked into it.

I was pretty impressed by what I found out. Aside from a myriad of other developmental benefits (like sensory stimulation and language and motor development), it turns out that all that stomping, clapping, and singing isn’t just making our kids better musicians, it’s actually making them better people. There is something that happens when a group is working towards the same goal (in this case, say, determining what Old McDonald’s cow says) that unites them without even knowing it. It’s called “shared intentionality,” and it’s kind of a big deal in the world of childhood cognitive development. Because they have to follow along with what the rest of the group is doing, singing and dancing together naturally forces kids to pay attention to what other people are doing, to catch on to the social cues they are being given, and to adjust their own behavior to become part of the group. That’s some pretty advanced three-step-processing.

It seemed somewhat inevitable that having kids ourselves would result in entering into the children’s music circuit. We were approached by a few libraries and community centers to play some short “concerts,” and playing them really opened my eyes on a personal level to how important music is for kids. Their eyes are glued on us, their feet and hands flail excitedly, and their little bodies wriggle in

something like unison. Long before they learn to verbalize, kids can observe and even participate in the rhythm and patterns that are inherent to music. This allows us all to engage in a kind of communication – and reinforces that feeling of unity. And it turns out that learning these skills early on helps kids to develop bonds of empathy for other people. Because they need to be aware of what other people are doing in order to sing or play along, they are forced to look outside themselves and their own desires. I keep coming back to the quote from Tal-Chen Rabinowitch of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington: “Synchrony is like a glue that brings people together — it’s a magical connector for people.”

These theories made me look back on my years of playing as part of a band through a new lens. It was true, there was a level of understanding I shared with my bandmates that kept us all humming together for so many years. On a fundamental level, it kept us all on the same beat, in harmony with each other, and at the same level of energy on stage. But on a deeper level, it allowed us to forgive each other’s flaws, to work through our differences, to have compassion for each other, and to understand the importance of each person’s contribution in creating something beautiful. All wrapped up into a melodic little nutshell, those are some of the best lessons I could ever hope for my children to learn.