Building an other-minded society: Musical interaction cultivates empathy in children

Photo of a child learning to play the violin by the Knight FoundationSchools could one day add “empathy education” to their curriculum. New research suggests that understanding the emotional state of others is something that can be learned and practiced.

According to a study published in the July issue of Psychology of Music, playing musical games can help cultivate a sense of empathy in children.

“Perhaps the most important thing the study tells us about the development of emotional empathy is that it is amenable to intervention,” Tal-Chen Rabinowitch of the University of Cambridge, the lead author of the study, told PsyPost. “We now have the (very friendly and enjoyable) tools to influence and enhance emotional empathy in children, a significant building block for shaping a more empathic and other-minded society.”

The study was co-authored by Ian Cross and Pamela Burnard of the University of Cambridge.

For their study, the researchers ran a musical program over the length of an entire school year. Children ages 8-11 participated in the program in several small groups. The program was comprised of various musical games, which were based on previous studies that uncovered the specific elements in musical group interaction that promoted empathy.

“What is special about musical interaction is that it relies on a remarkably rich and intense blend of social, cognitive and emotional skills that appear to be also important for emotional empathy (e.g. imitation, entrainment, unarticulated communication, etc.),” Rabinowitch explained. “We believe that this is not mere chance, but that it is the product of what we hypothesize to have been a co-evolution of music and social structure. This being said, there are of course other forms of interaction that may also positively impact empathy, but music seems to stand out.”

The researchers also established two control groups. One group participated in a program similar to the musical program, which included various games but no musical interaction. The second group of children didn’t participate in any program.

Rabinowitch and her colleagues measured the children’s emotional empathy before and after the study. They found a substantial increase in empathy scores following the musical program. In addition, the children in the musical program had higher average scores compared children in the control groups at the end of the study.

“As for caveats, in this type of study it is very difficult to control for experimenter bias,” Rabinowitch told PsyPost. “Although the actual scoring for emotional empathy was completely computerized and automatic, the musical and control interaction sessions were mediated by me. One might argue that, in principle, I could have somehow subconsciously induced more empathy in the music group compared to the control games group (it should be noted though that empathy or anything to do with it were never explicitly discussed with the children).”

“But on the other hand, this allowed me direct access to the various group dynamics and also rendered the music and control interventions more comparable, since the children from both groups met with the same mediator. In any case, we plan in the future to run a much larger scale study including specially trained mediators.”