Music: The Perfect Tool to Reduce Kids’ Pandemic Stress

Sep 22, 2021

Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools – and kept most of them closed throughout the school year, many worried that music instruction would be the next thing to be left behind. “Many schools still approach the arts and music as something that’s extra,” Susan Darrow, CEO of the early childhood program Music Together, explains. “It’s the first thing to get cut.”

That’s why, when she started to get requests from both parents and schools for music resources, she was more than happy to move her program’s classes online – especially since she believes children need music now more than ever.

“Music can help us relieve stress naturally,” she explains. “If you think about what happens when you sing a song in your car or dance around the kitchen, you instantly feel better. That’s because feel-good chemicals are released when we sing and dance, and music connects us to others. These are all things we’re looking for right now.”

Of course, with in-person music lessons, band practice, and choir groups limited thanks to the pandemic, incorporating music into children’s daily lives can be more difficult. But it’s not impossible!

Our Musical Nature

Human beings are, after all, musical beings. “Music-making is one of the very few things that appears in every culture, every religion, and every people throughout history,” Darrow points out. “What that should tell us is that being musical is part of being human.”

As a matter of fact, plenty of studies show that music serves nearly the same function in vastly different cultures all over the world. Humans everywhere use it to soothe babies, dance, heal, and express joy and love. This is so universal studies have shown that Canadians can accurately identify a host of emotions, including sadness, joy, and anger in classical Indian ragas. That means music is something of a universal language.

We may not know exactly why this is, but it can be assumed that early humans used music as a bonding activity that helped promote social cohesion – group cooperation helped them survive and flourish. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that we’re still hardwired to love music.

Your Brain on Music

Of course, music offers more benefits than simply social bonding. It goes deeper, literally affecting us on a biological level.

One example of this is that joining in pleasurable musical activities releases reinforcing, feel-good hormones like endorphins and dopamine. This could help explain why adults who move together to music report liking each other, and trusting each other, more. Studies of preterm infants in intensive care, listening to music helped stabilize heart and breathing rates, improved feeding and weight gain, and led to more natural sleep patterns. What’s more, people participating in music therapy with a licensed practitioner have shown improvements in both mood and concentration, and have generally experienced reductions in pain, anxiety, fatigue, and the stress hormone cortisol. And all of this happens without the use of medication.

When it comes to children, playing a musical instrument has been shown to improve organization skills and growth of the brain areas responsible for thinking, memory, emotion regulation, and motor coordination. “Music learning supports all learning,” Darrow says. “There’s almost nothing you can do that lights up parts of the brain the way music does.”

But the benefits aren’t limited to the classroom. Research has shown that just listening to music engages both sides of the brain, activates the body’s reward system, and helps brain growth and development, regardless of whether the child listening has formal musical training or not.

Make Your Household Musical

With all of this in mind, one way to help your child build resilience at a time when kids are experiencing a lot of stress is by incorporating music into their everyday life. “What if you prescribed music, exercise, nutrition, healthy sleep, and breathing?” says James Hudziak, professor of psychiatry, pediatrics, and medicine at the Univerity of Vermont. “Instead of bad things negatively affecting the brain, good things can affect it.”

And whether or not your children have had musical instruction or are just starting to explore music, Darrow says that the most important teacher is you, the parents. “Let your child hear and see you singing, let them see you dancing,” she says.

Try to make music a natural part of your everyday routine. “I know families who do a regular family dance party every night after dinner – you just put music on, and everybody jams in the living room. Have a family kitchen jam session with pots and pans and spatulas. Establish a nightly ritual of singing your child to sleep.”

Even if you’re not exactly “musically inclined,” Darrow has some good news: “It doesn’t matter how well you do it. As a parent, if you can’t sing in tune or keep a beat, your child doesn’t learn how to sing from you, but do learn to love to sing from you.”

Hudziak agrees, and says families should try to dedicate at least a few minutes to music appreciation every day, whether it’s practicing an instrument, or simply watching a live stream. It can even be as simple as listening to music and tapping along to the beat, singing along to a song, or swaying to the music.

Introduce your children to a wide variety of genres, and practice mindful listening so they can pay attention to the music without distraction. The key, according to Hudziak, is to make sure kids don’t feel pressure to perform perfectly. You’ve got to make it fun! “We made music training a joy, a benefit,” Hudziak says. “This is called incentive-based behavioral training” and it can use techniques like rewarding an hour of music practice or engagement with extra time to play games. This not only helps to reinforce the positive behaviour, but can also lead kids to these healthy activities on their own as they become intrinsically rewarding.

“If you believe bad things will lead to bad outcomes, then you have to believe good things may lead to good outcomes,” Hudziak says. “By not having music, exercise, breathing, and good sleep hygiene, we’re actually contributing to … emotional problems and academic decline. There’s no greater joy than bringing music to someone and watching it turn their life around.”

For more ideas to help you keep the music playing, check out our blog, Keeping the Music Alive During COVID-19, and for homemade instrument ideas, check out 10 DIY Instruments You Can Make At Home!