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What are the social-emotional effects of participation in group music programs on children?


Many studies have been conducted to determine the existence of positive effects on children when they participate in music programs. The positive effects studied can be grouped into two categories: cognitive and social-emotional. This paper will examine the existing research regarding the latter.

There are many factors to consider when attempting to determine if participation in a music program leads to positive psychosocial benefits. Some of these factors include the age of the child, the socioeconomic status of the child, and the temperament of the music teacher and parents. The teaching emphasis and goals of the music program are also major considerations. This paper examines research regarding all of these factors and provides a summary and recommendations from the research for how to structure a music program if the goal is to improve socio-emotional health in children.

Marching band
Marching band

Difference between Cognitive Effects and Psychosocial Effects

Most studies regarding the effects of music programs on children focus on cognitive skill benefits rather than socio-emotional skill benefits (Schellenberg, Corrigall, Dys & Malti, 2015). Cognitive skills include but are not limited to: reading and mathematics literacy, creativity, and verbal skills. Socio-emotional skills include but are not limited to: self-esteem, social cooperation, positive interactions, and prosocial behavior. Perhaps one explanation for why so many studies focus on cognitive benefits is that spelling, reading, and mathematics can be tested quantitatively while gauges of self-esteem and positive interactions are subjective. As a result, researchers have more difficulty gathering reliable data for the latter skills. Rather than testing quantitatively for these types of psychosocial (prosocial) skills, researchers have to rely on self-reporting, biased evaluations of parents and teachers, and interviews with the subjects (Hallam, 2010). However, many studies have attempted to determine the relationship between music program participation in school and any increases in social-emotional skills.

Early Childhood

There are fewer studies available that examine early childhood versus other childhood age groups. Two studies focused specifically on children between the ages of 3 and 6. Both studies found positive socio-emotional benefits on the children who participated in the group music program. Music was found to increase prosocial behavior (Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010) and improve school readiness (Ritblatt, Longstreth, Hokoda, Cannon, & Weston, 2013).

The Ritblatt, et al. study assigned children (N = 102) to one of two groups, a music school readiness group or a no music school readiness group. The children in the school readiness music program learned 20 songs, 15 of which were specifically chosen to improve skills such as sharing and cooperation. The Preschool and Kindergarten Behavioral Scale was used to gauge the pre- and post-study levels of the students in both groups. Both the children’s teachers and parents assessed the children. The parents’ assessments showed no significant increase in scores for either group. However, the teachers’ assessments showed an increase in scores for the music group but not the control group. Ritblatt, et al. speculate that the lack of an increase in scores from parents is because the parents are not likely seeing the children in social situations with their peers like the teachers are and are thus unable to see the behaviors of sharing and cooperation to the same extent. However, even though the study found that psychosocial benefits accrued to the children participating in the music program, the critical question is how much of a role music played in the outcome since the majority of the songs’ lyrics were specifically teaching the skills being measured.

Kirschner and Tomasello studied 4-year-old children (N = 96) to determine if priming them with a group musical activity would lead to increased prosocial behavior when they were presented with an opportunity to help immediately after the musical activity. The children were divided into two groups, one that sang, danced and played percussion instruments while walking around an artificial pond and another, the control group, that also walked around the pond but without any musical elements.

After the initial phase, both groups were presented with an opportunity to help a fellow student participating in a goal-oriented activity who was having difficulty. To help, children would have to delay accomplishing their own goals. The study designers wanted to do this to elevate the quality of any prosocial behavior that the children would present. Both boys and girls in the musical group showed a significant increase in helping versus the control group, with girls showing significantly higher prosocial behavior than boys (Figure 1).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Middle Childhood

By middle childhood, children generally have developed a theory of mind, can discriminate emotions, and have better gross and fine motor abilities. These developments mean they are better able to participate in group musical activities and researchers can better gauge their social-emotional health since children are able talk about their emotions and show more empathy.

Studies of children at this age mainly have found positive benefits on children who participate in group music. In the United Kingdom, a random yearlong study was conducted on children (N= 52, 28 girls, 24 boys, M age = 10.3) from four primary schools with similar SES and school aptitude scores (Rabinowitch, Cross, & Burnard, 2013). Children who were in a group that took part in musical group interaction were found to have higher emotional empathy scores.

A mixed methods study (N=104, Age=6-8) in Columbia (Zapata Restrepo, 2012) found that the self-identity and emotional awareness increased in children who undertook the study’s music program. The researchers found that the children were more resilient, managed challenges better, and could adapt to their situations better.

A study of the effects of three years of piano lessons (N=117) found a positive effect on children’s self-esteem (Costa-Giomi, 2004). The piano lessons were provided to children with no formal music education and no piano at home and who had an annual household income under $30,000. Although funded by a grant from the National Piano Foundation in Dallas, TX, the study was conducted at the University of Texas at Austin by Eugenia Costa-Giomi, Associate Professor of Music and Human Learning.


The study “Absence of widespread psychosocial and cognitive effects of school-based music instruction in 10–13-year-old students” (Rickard, Bambrick, & Gill, 2012) obviously found no positive social-emotional benefits on the children who participated in group music. There are many problems with the study design that could account for this finding. The study admits that at-risk students didn’t participate in the study while also introducing the results of research that shows they fall in the category of children who benefit the most from group music. The cross-group comparisons were designed in a way that would also likely hide any social-emotional benefits. The study compared psychosocial measures of music groups to other arts programs, including theater.

Synchrony is the key variable that isn’t accounted for in this cross-group comparison. Synchrony is “the temporal coordination of biological events, social behaviors or affective states” (Schellenberg, et. al, 2015). Activities with a high level of motor-synchrony are associated with many positive social-emotional outcomes including cooperative behaviors, sharing of emotional experiences, and general well-being (Schellenberg, et. al, 2015).

Why? Synchrony facilitates endorphin release, which is important for social bonding (Schellenberg, et. al, 2015). In the Rickard, Bambrick, and Gill study, the comparison groups consisted of children who were all participating in activities involving a high level of motor-synchrony. Because of this, both groups of children were likely to see gains in social-emotional learning. To compare the SEL of these two groups and come to the conclusion that participation in group music doesn’t contribute to psychosocial improvements is to ignore the significant role of synchrony. The comparison was made between two groups who both were likely affected by the high level of motor-synchrony and saw equivalent gains in SEL.


In adolescence, peers become the most important people in children’s lives. During this time, social bonds naturally are growing stronger. Studies of adolescents who participated in group music have found that the children developed increased levels of self-esteem, optimism, happiness, and perseverance (Sigler, 2015). These children also reported stress relief from difficult classes (Countryman, 2009). Significant numbers of children interviewed in studies stated that participation in band provided an experience or sense of community (Countryman, 2009; Sigler, 2015).

In a study of 33 young adults in Canada (Countryman, 2009), researchers found that community was the most important vehicle for “self-making and music making.” Countryman recorded over 65 hours of interviews with these students and concluded that communities of practice lead to “a more personally transformative set of experiences.”

A quote from one of the students interviewed reveals the extent of closeness she felt with the students in her personal community of practice (Countryman, 2009):

The band was like a big family. It was a really great group of people. I miss those early morning rehearsals and all those inside jokes we had in the percussion section. And our conversations were some of the best conversations I’ve ever had. You spent so much time together, you felt like you really knew them. You had a bond with them that no one else could have…. If you know people already the music enhances the bond. (p. 94)

Communities of Practice

Communities of practice emerge naturally as part of social organization (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). Community is defined as “a group of people who interact, learn together, build relationships, and in the process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment” (Countryman, 2009). School music programs are ideal settings for the natural emergence of communities of practice because their characteristics are, by definition, communities, not classrooms.

According to Countryman (2009), communities of practice require three major components: mutual engagement in some activity, joint enterprise—which she defines as interacting, negotiating and learning from near peers—and shared repertoire, which involves stories, inside jokes and words, and ideas. Thinking about communities of practice in this manner, further insight into the inherent ability of music programs to facilitate the existence of a community of practice can be seen. There is certainly mutual engagement in the activity of music-making. Joint enterprise exists when the leaders within the band program are given the freedom to help their near-peers progress. Shared repertoire is created as the students experience performances, band camp, half-time shows, parades, and countless other experiences where they generate the memories and experiences that they continue to build upon and reference as they participate in the community.

At-risk youth

The paper “Reaching At-Risk Students Through Music Education” (Shuler, 1992) mentions numerous times that at-risk students have difficulties in traditional school settings. Because of this, Shuler goes on to say that “music and the other arts play an essential role in making school attractive and motivating to at-risk students.” Many studies attempting to learn the psychosocial benefits of group music have come to similar conclusions. In interviews (Sigler 2015), students expressed that their music classes allowed them to escape from family dysfunction. Sigler concluded that the themes of the dialogues with at-risk students “epitomized how meaningful music education can be in the life of a student.” A study of disadvantaged eighth graders in South Africa (N=84) found “moderate to moderately strong positive relationships between participation in instrumental music and self-esteem, optimism, happiness and perseverance.” A study (Schellenberg, et. al, 2015) that followed 84 third and fourth graders in public schools in a city in Canada found that “group music training and prosocial skills were associated positively among 8- and 9-year-olds, but only for children who had poor social skills at the beginning of the study.”

While at-risk students gain the most from participating in group music, they participate in band programs at a much lower rate than non-disadvantaged students. Seven highly regarded music instructors were asked to provide techniques for recruiting and retaining at-risk students in group music programs (Robinson, 2004). Their responses were categorized and can be summarized into three general guidelines:

1) Treat each student as an individual and see their unique contributions.

2) Incorporate as much diversity into the curriculum as possible (various forms of music from different cultures, etc.).

3) Recognize the smallest of successes because many at-risk students have a learned helplessness that leads them to shut down in the face of obstacles.

At the extreme, though, we must avoid the belief that simply placing at-risk students into group music will be enough. Zapata Restrepo (2012) describes the complexity of the situation for at-risk students and reminds us of the limitations of group music when she states:

Music is not a panacea to solve all the problems of an inequitable system, as these aspects cannot be solved just with musical activities: this is a matter of social equity and opportunity, which exist at the level of policies in social investment education and job opportunities. (p. 320)

Parents, Teachers, and Programs

When it comes to whether children reap social-emotional gains from participating in group music, the influence of parents and music instructor and the design of the program all play a significant part. Zapata Restrepo (2012) states that parents and teachers “can help children to be more confident about musical performance and improvisation, especially if the family values, fosters, and encourage [sic] musical activities.” The same study asserts that there is a correlation between how much encouragement parents give their children concerning pursuing music and how much the children’s self-esteem rises as a result. The study makes this comparison against the self-esteem of children whose parents took the musical endeavor seriously.

The design of the music program can also affect how much SEL children gain from participation. Choi and Kim (2014) say, “Avoid the use of music as skilled activity, classroom should focus on cooperation and empathy rather than competition.”

Finally, in the paper “Recommendations for the investigation and delivery of music programs aimed at achieving psychosocial wellbeing benefits in mainstream schools,” Crooke & McFerram (2014) recommend designing music programs to be fun, democratic, and small in size. The same study encourages band directors to use a simple lexicon and to actively recruit at-risk students.


Both synchrony and communities of practice play a role in facilitating increased social-emotional health in children when they participate in group music programs. Further research that focuses on uncovering the significance of synchrony could help educators better understand how to design school programs for increasing student social-emotional health. A study that follows the model of the Kirschner and Tomasello one could provide data that reveals to some extent how various synchronous activities correspond with the incidence rate of helping behavior. Instead of only testing musical priming, the study also could have groups that participate in theatrical priming and dance priming and then measure the rate of prosocial interventions across groups including a control group with no synchronous activity priming.

While most studies showed that music program participation created some positive effects in children of all ages, low SES and disadvantaged children clearly benefitted the most. However, participation in a music program didn’t “cure” children of all of their problems or suddenly remove all of the barriers that disadvantaged children have toward living better lives.

Findings show that children with low socioeconomic status and lower levels of social-emotional skills benefit the most from participation in music education programs. None of the studies mentioned in this paper was able to determine if part of the positive effect on low SES children and lower social-emotional skilled children can be linked to the presence of children with high levels of psychosocial skills. To better determine the cause of improved psychosocial skills when disadvantaged children participate in group music programs, I suggest the creation of a study that tracks two music programs taught by the same instructor and that follow the same program format. Only children who score poorly on psychosocial measurements participate in one music program. In the other music program, not more than 25 percent of the students are disadvantaged. The study should test for empathy, prosocial skills, and other psychosocial skills before, during, and after the program. By examining the outcome of this study, we could learn not only whether the students are benefitting from the music program but also how interacting or not with students who already scored high in psychosocial skills affects the outcome for disadvantaged students. Since studies have found that students who already score highly in social-emotional skills have been shown to score lower after long periods of group music (reversion to the mean) (Schellenberg et. al, 2015), perhaps a third music group of only high-scoring social-emotional skilled students should also be examined to determine the effects of the disadvantaged students on the high-scoring students. The outcome of this study could provide insight into how the makeup of a band program can help improve the psychosocial functions of disadvantaged youth while also protecting the social-emotional health of students who aren’t lacking psychosocially. Unfortunately, though, with many band programs struggling, even if this study could prescribe ratios of disadvantaged youth to non-disadvantaged youth, most schools wouldn’t be in a position to have multiple music programs to create an optimal arrangement. Regardless, I feel that this is the best direction to take regarding the study of psychosocial benefits of music programs on children. 


Choi, S., & Kim, Y. (2014). Investigating Elementary School Children's Learning Experiences through Multicultural Chorus Activity: SEL Approach. Procedia - Social And Behavioral Sciences, 159(5th World Conference on Psychology, Counseling and Guidance, WCPCG-2014, 1-3 May 2014, Dubrovnik, Croatia), 324-328. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.12.381

Costa-Giomi, E. (2004). Effects of Three Years of Piano Instruction on Children's Academic Achievement, School Performance and Self-Esteem. Psychology Of Music, 32(2), 139-152.

Countryman, J. (2009). High School Music Programmes as Potential Sites for Communities of Practice--A Canadian Study. Music Education Research, 11(1), 93-109.

Crooke, A. D., & McFerran, K. S. (2014). Recommendations for the Investigation and Delivery of Music Programs Aimed at Achieving Psychosocial Wellbeing Benefits in Mainstream Schools. Australian Journal Of Music Education, (1), 15-37.

Devroop, K. (2012). The social-emotional impact of instrumental music performance on economically disadvantaged South African students. Music Education Research, 14(4), 407-416. doi:10.1080/14613808.2012.685456

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Kirschner, S., & Tomasello, M. (2010). Original Article: Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution And Human Behavior, 31354-364. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.04.004

Rabinowitch, T., Cross, I., & Burnard, P. (2013). Long-term musical group interaction has a positive influence on empathy in children. Psychology Of Music, 41(4), 484-498.

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Robinson, N. R. (2004). Who is “at-risk” in the music classroom? Music Educators Journal, 90(4), 38-43.

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Sigler, P. T. (2015). Can You Hear My Voice? Students' Reflections Regarding Access to Music Participation During Secondary School.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice : A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Review Press.

Zapata Restrepo, G. P. (2012). The effects of music on socio-emotional and musical development in 6-8 year old children.

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