The Best Music For Your Child’s Brain

Over the last several decades, neuroscientists and psychologists have done amazing research on the relationship between music and our brains, demonstrating what music does for our brains and bodies and also what happens in real time as we listen to music or actively participate in making music.

Because of this research, we know music can build a strong, high functioning brain in young children, making it easier for them to understand and process new information. We know that as we play instruments, every area of our brain lights up with activity. And we know that when we sing together, feel-good chemicals that lower our stress hormones and make us feel safe and bonded together are released in our bodies. 

But as an early childhood music educator, my question has always been about the type of music. Do all of these wonderful, magical things happen in our toddler’s brain if we curl up with them in a rocking chair and sing “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘N Roses? Or rock out to Taylor Swift while driving to the grocery store? Or what happens if we put on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony while coloring together?The answer can be tricky, and I certainly have no intention of offending anyone for enjoying different types of music. Our music-listening preferences are all different and that is a fascinating characteristic of being human – but listening preferences for adults, and music that is appropriate for growing and developing young children, can be very different.


Adult Brains And Child Brains On Music

Adult brains have established pathways for processing different textures and layers of sound within one song or piece of music (including lyrics). For young children, this is not the case. Science tells us that babies (even before birth!) and young children have negative physical reactions when listening to harsh sounds and strong, heavy beats.  Dr. Susan Luddington-Hoe, an authority on infant stimulation writes, “The fetal heartbeat changes significantly to different types of music.  Both before and after birth, babies are really bothered by strong beat and loud music – but they love soft music and are especially thrilled by Vivaldi,” (Infant development, 1998).

Currently, neuropsychologists are studying the effect of heavy doses of beat on developing brains. They’re looking into the effects of sensory overload on a nervous system that has not yet developed effective mechanisms to defend itself, (Healy, J.  Endangered minds, 1990). They hypothesize that too much loud, beat-driven music might induce a defensive action of “tuning out” for a growing brain, resulting in a child learning early on to stop listening.  As a teacher, a mother, a musician, and a person focused on society doing right by our children, this is terrifying.

In her TED talk about how to have a better conversation, Celeste Headlee mentions that active listening is probably the most important skill to have, not just in order to hold a good conversation with someone, but just a general life skill.  While doing research for this piece, I came across article after article stating that employers look for applicants that prove to have excellent listening and communication skills and that this often comes across when the applicant is a musician.

In a recent interview on NPR’s 1A, Celeste mentions that one of the reasons she is such a good listener is because she is also a musician, and learned early on how to actively listen. She is able to easily transfer that skill to her current job as a public radio talk show host, keeping up with the rhythm and pace of conversation.

As parents, we want our children to have rich, fulfilling lives both professionally and personally. And knowing how to listen is one of the primary (if not the most important) skill to accomplish this. So it is of great importance that we do not inadvertently teach them how to stop listening by surrounding them with music that is too harsh and texturally complicated for them to process and enjoy. Instead, by giving their ears the right kind of music, we can help them to stay actively engaged – not just in the listening – but engaged in the world around them.


The Mozart Effect And Musical Mice

So, what is the right kind of music for young children?  Most of us have heard of “The Mozart Effect” and the wildly generalized claims that listening to Mozart makes us smarter and that playing Mozart for your unborn child will ensure they are born a genius. I hope you are picking up on my sarcasm here – even as biased as I am, I have a hard time accepting these claims.But, as with most gross overgeneralizations, there is some truth to the statement, as is the case with this one.

Don Campbell, the owner of the trademarked term, claims that the “Mozart Effect” is meant to be a more general term that signifies the transformational power of classical music in health, education, and well-being. Researchers have found repeatedly that listening to classical music can engage our brains and bodies in ways that other types of music do not. For example, when listening to classical music, our brains utilize the same pathways for spatial reasoning, therefore ready-ing that part of our brain for solving problems, thinking logically, and being more aware of patterns and systems around us.

Listening to classical music also enhances the activity of the specific genes involved in dopamine secretion (the feel good hormone), as well as transport synaptic function, learning, and memory. To top it all off, researchers have also found that listening to classical music “down-regulates” genes that can be associated with neurodegenerative diseases, showing that simply by one’s music choice, you can keep your brain healthy.  Pretty amazing stuff!  

So, while it might be inaccurate to claim that because your child is listening to Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” every night before going to sleep that they will wake up a genius – it is safe to say that you have chosen the best music for giving your child’s brain and body what it needs to feel good, be in a relaxed state, to problem solve, and ward off potential neurodegenerative diseases. That is a parenting win if I ever heard of one!

And speaking of classical music awakening our brains to spatial reasoning and thinking logically, have you heard the one about the mice and the maze? This experiment will make your jaw drop.

In 1998, a Virginia high school student did an experiment to determine if different types of music had any effect on a group of mice in solving a maze.

To summarize, in his first trial, he divided the mice into three groups.  

Group 1 was the control group and did not listen to music.  

Group 2 listened to classical music.  

And Group 3 listened to heavy rock music.  

The student intended to do this experiment for four weeks to see if there was any difference between the three groups of mice in solving the fixed maze, however he had to end the experiment after only three weeks because the mice in Group 3 (the heavy rock group) had become so agitated and violent that they killed each other. Only one mouse remained in this group and it wasn’t enough to do a proper analysis.

With his second trial, the student made special living arrangements for all of the mice so that they lived in separate spaces and couldn’t fight with one another.  He then timed the mice as they ran through the maze to get a baseline before starting to expose them to different types of music.  On average, it took all mice about 10 minutes to solve the maze.

Once the student started playing music for them, the control group (no music) got their time to about 5 minutes, and the classical music group got their time to just under 2 minutes. The heavy rock group, sadly, got slower at solving the maze and by the end of the four weeks was solving the maze on average in about 30 minutes. Woah.  I’m going to let you make your own conclusions here…


From My Own Experience…

To continue trying to answer that question, what is the right type of music with which to surround my child, let’s  jump off of the “here’s-a-bunch-of-scientific-research-about-what-type-of-music-your-child-should- listen-to” soapbox, and let me share what I have observed in my own music teaching and parenting experience.

  • If you are putting on some music for your child to listen to and there is someone singing, your child is likely to try to sing along. If the song is pitched in a key that is suited to the range of your child’s voice, great. If it’s not (and most current pop music definitely is not), when your child tries to sing along, they could possibly damage their vocal cords by attempting to match pitch with the singer by singing too high or too low, or they will sing out of tune.  If they sing out of tune continuously, they will eventually lose the ability to sing in tune and on pitch.
  • The singer’s voice also needs to be gentle and generally pleasant to listen to.  A good rule of thumb is that if you get annoyed listening to that particular singer or it’s too harsh or cheesy for you, the same goes for your child and it’s probably not a great choice.
  • The vocal music you choose for your child should be minimally accompanied and with acoustic instruments when possible. It’s the same idea as the loud, heavy beat being too much for little brains to process – if the accompaniment to the melody is complicated, loud, with a heavy beat and over-produced with electronic instruments, your child’s brain is not developed enough to decipher through all of the din to find the melody. Therefore, they won’t be able to sing along. When this happens continuously, your child learns to either tune it all out or to sing out of tune, eventually losing the ability to sing in tune and match pitch.
  • Classical music, children’s folk music, and children’s nursery rhymes are all fantastic choices for your young child.

Children’s brains are developing and growing at a rapid rate and we want what they listen to to be pleasurable, easy for them to replicate if they want to, and something that gives them all of those amazing health and wellbeing benefits. We do not want it to be something that causes chaos, stress, and an eventual tuning out.

Giving your child developmentally appropriate music is like giving your first grader a wonderful book that is right at their reading level so they can read it, understand it, learn and grow from it, have a sense of accomplishment, and get all of the good brain-reading mojo stuff happening.

We would never put the seventh Harry Potter book to a six year old and expect them to read it, comprehend it, and enjoy it. The potential for them to get so frustrated that they quit all together is too great!  Nor should we surround our children’s ears with over-produced, beat-heavy, electronic music and expect great things.  It just won’t happen.  Their brains and nervous systems are not ready for it, and the potential for damaging their vocal cords, causing them unnecessary stress, and possibly teaching them to tune out is too great!  Not to mention that you will be robbing them of all of those wonderful things that happen to our brains and bodies when we listen to more developmentally appropriate music.

The easiest way for me to think about this is to liken my children’s daily musical diet with a perfect dinner plate. On a day when I am winning at the whole motherhood thing, my children’s dinner plates are filled with a healthy protein, a solid serving of veggies, some carbohydrates, and a serving of fruit. And if they have been winning at the whole behavior and good choices thing, they may just talk me into a sweet treat for dessert.  


Now let’s think of music choices as the different types of food on their plate…

​Healthy protein and veggies (nutrient dense, gives kids all of the amazing brain and body benefits possible, should be at every meal) – classical music (Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Handel, Brahms); acoustic children’s folk music (Pete Seeger, Jill Trinka, Jean Ritchie, Woody Guthrie, Ruth Crawford Seeger)
​Carbohydrates and Fruit (still really good for their bodies with a little sweetness thrown in for good measure, awesome for toddlers and older children, can be thrown in every day to keep things interesting) – jazz, particularly early jazz and swing (Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie); the Beatles, again particularly the early stuff (think “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”); Caspar Babypants (oh, how we love this guy at our house!!); other styles of orchestral music (Beethoven, Chopin, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Tchaikovsky – particularly the Nutcracker Suite, St. Seans – particularly the Carnival of the Animals); orchestral soundtracks to their favorite movie or musical – this can engage a whole other part of their brain as they can imagine the story playing out while they listen to the details of the music (Star Wars by John Williams, older Disney films, The Incredibles)

Dessert (no nutritional value, just straight up sugar, very limited quantities) – this can be anything! But try to avoid sounds that cause your child undue stress. And good grief, please keep the heavy rock music listening for after the kids are in bed. That whole mice thing is pretty scary. **Sidenote about lyrics to a lot of pop music – be sure you are aware of what dear Ms. Swift is singing about! No one wants to live out the scenario when you are sitting at the Thanksgiving table with your sweet Nana and your little cherub starts singing, “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me…I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams…oooh, look what you made me do!”  Nope, nobody wants that.  Nobody.​​

In Conclusion

While you are driving around in the car with your kiddos this week or when it’s a rainy day and you’re hanging out in pajamas at home, think about putting on some Pete Seeger so you can sing and be silly together and get all of those amazing chemicals flowing for both of you. Or why not try St. Saens “Carnival of the Animals” and you can talk with your child about how each piece sounds like a different animal moving. Then you and your little one can make up your own animal movements for each one!  So, now on your fifteen minute drive to preschool or during your lazy, rainy morning, you have given your child’s brain a healthy, nutrient-dense snack. You have engaged with your child in a way that makes you both feel good and you have given them something that helps their brain to grow, develop, and thrive….not just put them (and you) into a musical sugar coma.