We all know that music can influence how we feel. Who hasn’t gotten a lift from cranking some tunes? But research shows that music can also affect people in many other ways. It may even help them learn and perform certain tasks better.
Most of this research has been done with adults. But some educators have tried using music to help kids.
Chris Brewer, M.A., is the author of Soundtracks for Learning: Using Music in the Classroom and a former instructor at Fairhaven College of Western Washington University. She’s worked for more than 20 years helping teachers (including special education teachers) use music in their classrooms.
Even though there aren’t many directly relevant studies, Brewer has seen what tends to work for kids. We asked for her thoughts on how music might help in four areas that can be tough for kids with learning and attention issues.
These suggestions are just a starting point. “Everyone is different. Watch your child, see how she responds, and experiment,” says Brewer. “If a piece of music doesn’t evoke the right mood, try something else.”
Keep in mind that some kids may find music distracting. And if your child has sensory processing issues or is sensitive to sound, let her take the lead. “Ask her how loud or soft she wants the music—or if she wants it at all,” says Brewer.
(Note: When you click on the music suggestions below, you’ll be asked to sign up for a free service called Spotify. If you are not signed up for Spotify and don't wish to do so, you can search for these music suggestions on YouTube or another platform of your choosing.)
Your Child Needs to: Focus
She’s got facts to memorize, vocabulary words to learn or chapters to read.
Music to try: Baroque music. Try the slower movements in works like Handel’s Water Music or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Why it may help: A three-year study from 2006 found that college students enjoyed math more and retained it better when music of the Baroque era played during class. They also got better grades.
Other studies have also linked Baroque music to improved learning. Brewer says the music’s slow, steady pace may help kids focus. It’s also predictable. There are no sudden changes in rhythm or volume, and the harmonies aren’t dissonant. These features work together to create a background that may help some kids absorb information.
Keep in mind that if your child is hyperactive, she may need a transition. Start by playing something lively to match her energy level, Brewer advises. Once she’s engaged with the music, switch to the more sedate Baroque movements.
Your Child Needs to: De-stress
Maybe she’s tense after a tough day at school. Or maybe her stress is more high energy—she’s feeling anxious or just had a tantrum.
Music to try: Depending on which kind of stress your child is feeling, you might try either soft, slow melodic music, such as any of the songs from Daniel Kobialka’s When You Wish Upon a Star or Louis Armstrong’s soothing “What a Wonderful World.” Or you might play fun, gently upbeat music like the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden.”
“When You Wish Upon a Star”
“What a Wonderful World”
“Octopus’s Garden” (Note: Music from The Beatles isn’t available on Spotify, so we’ve included a live version from Ringo Starr.)
Why it may work: Research suggests that relaxing music may help ease some people’s physical and emotional responses to stress. If your child just needs to wind down and get her mind off her day, says Brewer, something slow, soothing and familiar may make her feel more centered. But if her energy’s high, fast, fun upbeat music could distract her and change the mood.
Your Child Needs to: Get It Done
She has to get through a tedious task. Think emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry or making her lunch in the morning.
Music to try: Energetic music with a strong beat like Earth Tribe Rhythms by Brent Lewis or marching band performances. Your child’s favorite upbeat music can also be effective, as long as the lyrics are positive.
Earth Tribe Rhythms
Why it may help: Since at least the 1970s, studies have been showing that music can boost adults’ productivity and efficiency as they do routine work. In Brewer’s experience, music might also help kids perform rote tasks. “Say your child’s energy is low but she has things to get done,” says Brewer. “Music with alternating fast and slow parts and strong rhythms may make her want to move to the music, which livens up her mood.”
Your Child Needs to: Generate Ideas for Papers and Projects
She’s trying to generate ideas for a paper or write a story for English class.
Music to try: Free-flowing contemporary instrumental, light jazz, New Age, or easy listening music such as solo piano pieces like “Autumn” by George Winston, Pat Metheny’s jazz guitar music, or selections from Enya.
We Live Here
The Very Best of Enya
Why it may help: In 2011, Finnish researchers found that processing the timbre (or sound quality) of a song may encourage “mind-wandering,” which can be linked to creativity. Brewer suggests looking for music that feels spontaneous, meandering in different and surprising directions. Music that’s unpredictable encourages the mind to wander. It can help kids see things from different perspectives. And it may trigger those “aha” moments that seem to come out of nowhere.
For more tips on how to help your child transition between tasks, focus, problem-solve and more, explore Parenting Coach.