A year-long study at the University of Cambridge on children’s music-based activities indicates that playing music in groups on a regular basis greatly improves a child’s ability to empathise with others.

Researchers looking at group education sessions for 8 to 11-year-old children have shown that engaging in regular music-based activities with others - from ensembles to simple rhythmic exercises - can conspicuously advance empathy development, increasing a child’s capacity to recognise and consider the emotions of others, a university release said.

A total of 52 children - boys and girls - were split into three groups at random.

One of these groups met on a weekly basis to interact through musical games devised by the researchers, while the other two acted as control groups - one met with the same regularity but activities focused on words and drama but not music, the other received no additional activities.

Using standard and novel techniques such as answering questions designed to test compassion, and responding to emotion in facial expressions and movies, each child’s level of emotional empathy was evaluated at the start of the study and then again after a year, the release added.

The researchers found that children in the music-based activity group showed a substantial increase in empathy scores and a higher average score compared to the other groups.

“These results bear out our hypothesis that certain components of musical interaction may enhance a capacity for emotional empathy, which continues outside the musical context,” says Tal-Chen Rabinowitch, from the Centre for Music and Science, who led the study.

“We feel that the program of musical activities we’ve developed could serve as a platform for a new approach to music education - one that helps advance not just musical skill but also social abilities and, in particular, the emotional understanding of others,” Rabinowitch said.

The activities used in the study were developed to emphasise the components of musical interaction that the researchers believed would promote empathy - fostering greater understanding of shared mental states, the release said.

These empathy-promoting musical components include imitation, where children were asked to mimic or match other players’ movements and musical motifs - such as in the ‘Mirror Match’ game - and entrainment, where the researchers used rhythm to encourage synchronised performance - so that children learnt to align and adjust themselves through attending to others.

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