Can music improve behavior?
February 7th, 2012
07:30 AM ET

Can music improve behavior?

By Cheryl Castro, CNN

Listen to CNN Radio's podcast on music in the classroom from Cheryl Castro.

(CNN) – There is much research to show that music can improve academic performance. But what about behavior? Kindergarten teacher Shelvia Ivey sees the effects every day in her classroom.

"It's fun to see the shy ones blossom and music is a way for them to do that," Ivey said. For "some of the more aggressive children who have a hard time controlling their instincts, it's a time for them to express themselves, too and it's easier for them to control their instincts. And they're allowed to be expressive, and be unique."

The kids in Ivey's class are bright-eyed and about as focused as you can expect from 5-year-olds and younger. About a dozen of them hop, dance and clap along at a metro Atlanta Primrose school, a private school that offers programs for infants through kindergarten.

Over the fall, Primrose added The Music Class to the curriculum at all 240 of its schools spread across 16 states. Jason Caesar’s two active young sons, 2-year-old Kingston and 3-year-old Phoenix, attend the school. "The music definitely tames the savage 3-year-old," Caesar said.

Primrose Vice President Mary Zurn says the point of The Music Class is to help kids with their social and emotional development, which can lead to better self-control and better behavior. "We know that children, from the time they're able to toddle, are working toward being in control of something because they don't get many opportunities to do that," says Zurn. She said the way The Music Class curriculum is structured, gives kids "a lot more control.”

Rob Sayer, founder of The Music Class, explains how incorporating music in the classroom works.

"For example, at the very end of the song, we might have a fun activity like a clap or a jump and so they learn to wait, wait and then bang there it is. That whole process of waiting and that self-control element I think is very, very valuable."

But it may not work for all kids, according to Atlanta psychologist Sheri Siegel. Her practice includes lots of young children and she says music can be helpful in teaching coping skills for some kids, but not all. For kids with anger problems, "music will just annoy them," says Seigel. For other kids, "music will calm them down, help them get their aggression out rather than take them out physically. Music probably benefits more kids than not."

Researchers in England measured the heart rate and temperature of unruly kids in classrooms, and then added calming music to the environment. The kids had lower heart rates and temperatures after the music, likely improving focus and behavior, says Susan Hallam, professor of education and dean of faculty at the University of London’s Institute of Education.

"We do know that music has a big impact on your mood, so while you're actually making music it's probably going to make you feel good and therefore may have an impact on behavior."

"Happy" was how just about every kid described their feelings during music instruction at the metro Atlanta Primrose school.

OK, so we have these toddlers and pre-k kiddos feeling good and focusing more – but what's the effect years down the road in, say their middle school and high school years?

Primrose School's Mary Zurn makes a thought-provoking link.

"When you get children hooked on music early on in their lives, you're giving them an avenue that gives them something that says I'm good at this,” says Zurn. "The children who end up being bullies don't have that sense of that self-esteem."

The Music Class' Rob Sayer's says that's why folks don't usually think of musicians and artists as bullies. "One is not dominant over the other," Sayer says. "We learn to work together. We learn to listen. We learn to exchange with each other. … That's part of what it means to be a musician and not a bully."

But Susan Hallam thinks early childhood music instruction as an anti-bullying cure is kind of a stretch.

"I think the music would have to be carrying on," Hallam says. "I can't imagine that making music when you're 2, then stopping, (is) going to have an impact later on in your life."

And continuing music through elementary and middle school is costly. Many U.S. schools consider music a luxury they can no longer afford in the face of trying to fulfill federal testing requirements.

The No Child Left Behind Act went into effect in 2001, tying state testing results to federal funding in public schools. Trend data from the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts show a drop in school-based arts education offerings, especially since 2001.

Primrose’s Zurn deplores this trend.

Music and the arts are not “extras," Zurn says. “I see them as vital to human development."

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Filed under: Behavior • Early childhood education • Music • Podcast • Practice
soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. Karen Johns

    I agree with the article except where the generalization is made that "music will just annoy" angry children. Sorry, but that's just ridiculous. Every child is different as is every adult. I know many children with "anger problems" who benefit from music of various tempi, styles, timbres, etc. There is plenty of research on the subjects of music education and music therapy addressing the specifics.

    February 10, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  2. kim thompson

    I agree with most of what I've read in the comments and all of the article. Mr. Sayer and Primrose have identified the multiple advantages of music and movement in real, measurable practice. It's no longer adequate in schools to only "talk", we must prove and show worth and value in every lesson plan and performance. long last, the work is paying off. Thank the teachers!

    February 9, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  3. kim thompson

    I agree with most of what I've read in the comments and all of the article. Mr. Sayer and Primrose have identified the multiple advantages of music and movement in real, measurable practice. It's no longer adequate in schools to only "talk", we must prove and show it's worth and value in every lesson plan and performance. long last, the arts are getting respect and recognition

    February 9, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  4. S.Jones

    Music DOES make a difference. My Son was involved in marching band in High school. His grades not only continued to get better but he became more confident as well as a more respectful individual.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  5. kyphi

    As a 7th grade English teacher, I started class with silent reading and classical baroque music. Calmed them right down.

    February 8, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Jane

      As a homeschooler, I played classical music, took my son to classical concerts, and steered him into cello playing, at which he excelled. He was born strong willed and was a marvelous son. I may have had to keep one step ahead of him, but he got perfect SAT, ACT, and SAT II scores on his first tries and a full scholarship to one of the top universities in the world. If nothing else, music kept him busy with something that was very positive. While many kids were obsessed with video games, he was discovering new music, not just any old music but very high quality music, including jass, blues, 70's rock, progressive rock, whatever. Music helps kids do better at math, it keeps them busy, it adds joy to their lives, and it fills our homes with positive energy. You do have to have limits. I had noise limits and asked my son to explain lyrics to me if they were offensive. We'd have a discussion about them and anything negative seemed to vanish from his music tastes. Music is a natural form of expression, and parents should expose their kids to good music from before birth and take them to listen to truly good music that won't hurt their ears. Some parents say they can't afford it, but I see them spend hundreds every month on cable, video games, junk food, unnecessary mall trips. The best $800 I ever spent was when I bought my son's professional cello for 75% off at a going out of business sale. Right after that my car needed an $800 repair and I barely paid my mortgage, but that was a gift that kept on giving all through high school, through many awards and many hours of beautiful music in our home. He stopped playing when he got so crazy busy with academics trying to get into MIT, but I have hopes he will start again. Even if he doesn't, I wouldn't give up the experience for him. And, the thousands I ended up spending to support his cello habit in reality cost less than the money most people put out for other expenses for entertainment and even for things like psychologists, bail, expensive clothes, car insurance etc. that I didn't ever pay for for my son, other than for his nice dress shoes and silk ties for Ivy League college interviews. Put your money on good music, parents, and the other stuff won't be missed.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  6. Dora, another explorer

    I agree with parents taking the lead – even if they haven't had formal training themselves. The Music Class is usually taught in a studio setting with parents attending with babies and toddlers. Parents are encouraged to set the example in singing and participation, and in the closing song we sing, "and when I get home, .............I'll sing with my parents and dance with them too". Parents are encouraged to continue the experience at home with some of the tools provided in the class.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  7. John M

    Thank you, Todd Rundgren.

    February 8, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • kim thompson


      February 9, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  8. Cynthia

    Something not addressed in the article is the kind of music to which the children are listening. Some music holds a more subtle and beneficial energy for young ones and will have a more nourishing effect. Different genres, instruments, performers can alternately arouse any listener to heightened energy, or calm and lull them. Attempting to assess the response of children to music without considering this is like saying food is good for children. Food isn't just good for children, it's essential, but some kinds are more suitable than others, and some are not appropriate for children at all. An added note is that some of the most beneficial music for children is not written especially for young listeners.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  9. MiGrant

    "Music and the arts are not “extras, I see them as vital to human development."
    No truer words were ever spoken! YES! Music is important!
    I grew up "banging" my head with Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Quiet Riot,
    it's what kept me sane and provided both physical and mental outlets for all that extra adolescent energy...
    The mental discipline, timing, and sheer enjoyment that music bring to your life are priceless treasures that no amount of money can buy! ...All that for the price of a CD...
    Please support your music programs in schools, and the musicians that play the music you enjoy every day!

    February 8, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  10. KingHippster

    Is this news?
    Has anyone else noticed that CNN recently added a tab at the bottom of SOME of their articles where readers can vote on the relevance of the article and if it belongs there? If yes, have you noticed it's absence on this article?
    Music affects children? Really? I never would have guessed?
    It's comments like this that prompted CNN to add that chance to vote on an article. In their words : "Your feedback will help tell CNN producers what to do with this iReport. If you'd like, you can explain your choice in the comments below."
    I'm not poo-pooing on the idea of it all. i just don't think this is headline news. There is a link to this article on the "Living" page, but no link on CNN's main page under the "Living" section where it belongs.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  11. Ann Wilson

    Growing up in San Francisco in the late '50s and early 60's we had a fun music experience every week. A
    teacher would play the piano and we would all sing the lyrics–whether we could sing or not. One of the
    songs was "See You Tomorrow" about two little boys playing together and being best frineds. I still sing
    that song in my mind sometimes to put me in a good mood. It was in the 5th grade.

    February 7, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
  12. Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP

    While I was visiting a Primrose School in Colorado, the idea for one of the songs for my children's CD popped into my head! Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food includes a 'foodie" version of "ants go marching." As I watched all the preschoolers march to that song day after day, I knew they would love a song about food marching down to their tummies. So, thank you Primrose, for your love of inspired one song about the love of food!

    February 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  13. TheLeftCoast

    There's an awesome San Francisco-based non-profit, MusicianCorps, which is bringing music into schools across the country, based on the Peace Corps model.

    February 7, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  14. Dave Cohen

    I hope the Primrose schools are providing a well-balanced musical diet, including jazz, classical, folk, mellow rock (especially old Beatles!) and even various world musical traditions. The usual "kiddie music" serves a limited purpose for learning abc's and counting skills, but brain development is positively affected by other types of musical experiences to a greater extent. And adding physical movement to the experience can provide psycho-motor benefits as well.

    February 7, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Rob Sayer

      Dave – I agree 100% In the same way that a child who grows up in a household exposed to a large vocabulary learns to speak with a large vocabulary, a child exposed to a wide variety of musical styles is then able to understand and enjoy those styles. We have about 300 songs in our curriculum at Primrose and they feature many scale types, rhythms (including songs in unusual meters like 5/8 and 7/8) styles from jazz to classical styles to world music, and assorted instruments from many idioms and cultures. Every song has a fun physical activity to go with it. I wish we could include song from the Beatles, but the royalty fees make that a challenge!

      February 7, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
      • GB


        Why would royalty fees matter.unless you have to buy the sheet music? If you just sing it, then I don't think you have to pay. Am I wrong?

        February 8, 2012 at 4:36 am |
  15. Southern Celt

    Like anything else in a child's development it is up to the Parents to teach it. They are ultimately responsible, not a school.

    February 7, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  16. GatorDude

    No, no, not Ludwig . . .

    February 7, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  17. hypatia

    Depends on what one calls music.

    February 7, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  18. LinSea

    I think a lot of us take music for granted anymore, especially since we now can access it so easily and without any real effort on our part. Bravo to the teachers - and those parents, too - who help kids learn how to make music instead of just punching a button and waiting for it to come out of a speaker or headphones.

    February 7, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  19. Rob Sayer

    As president of The Music Class, I'd like to clarify one point. The main goal of The Music Class is to nurture the music development in young children. An added, wonderful benefit – teachers have found the combination of songs, activities and teaching techniques have allowed an improvement in student behavior.

    February 7, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • LinSea

      Keep up the wonderful work, Mr. Sayer.

      February 7, 2012 at 1:27 pm |