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Here’s Evidence That Music Training Dampens Young Kids’ Aggressive Behavior

In studying music, kids learn self-discipline, which proves beneficial in other aspects of life.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Are we regressing emotionally as a society? The rise of a presidential candidate who feels the need to respond aggressively to every slight, real or perceived — and the perception that he is seen as somehow more “real” or “authentic” than our current, less-reactive commander in chief — suggests as much.

The fact that we’re rewarding such behavior with fame and, perhaps, power sends a terrible message to kids. But parents have a counterweight they can employ, one which apparently teaches children how to control the tendency to respond to provocations with aggressive behavior: Enroll them in music lessons.

That’s the key finding of new research from Germany, which tracked two groups of youngsters — one taking music lessons, the other studying the natural sciences — for a year and a half. The study found that the budding scientists were more likely to respond to provocation with aggression as they grew older. In contrast, the young musicians were not.

“School-based music training can be beneficial in the sense of preventing increases in aggressive behavior,” concludes a research team led by psychologist Ingo Roden of Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany. Its study is published in the journal Learning and Instruction.

Musicians felt as much stress as their colleagues, but didn’t act on it.

The study featured 34 children, age seven or eight at the outset, who were recruited from six schools located in different parts of Germany. For 18 months, 14 of them “received extra weekly training of 45 minutes on musical instruments of their choice, in addition to the regular school music curriculum. The training included pitch, rhythm, and singing exercises on a basic level.”

The other 20 kids “received extended education in natural science.” The classes were structured much like the music lessons, with “45-minute sessions of intensive work in small groups, under the supervision of specially trained teachers.”

At the beginning and again at the conclusion of the study, all the kids played a version of the “Point Subtraction Aggression Game.” It’s a video game in which both you and your opponent attempt to press a button as soon as a soccer ball appears on the screen. The winner of each round gets 50 points, and, in addition, is allowed to decrease his or her opponent’s score by anywhere from zero to 100 points.

In these trials, there were no actual “opponents”; the sequence of “winning” and “losing” rounds was predetermined. To determine each child’s level of “provoked reactive aggressive behavior,” the researchers noted how many points they subtracted from their phantom foe.

Over the 18 months, “children in the music group showed no significant change in this measure,” they write, “whereas children in the control group showed an increase.” This suggests the young musicians “were stable in their coping strategies, whereas the natural science children showed reduced capacities to withstand the provocation of aggressive behavior.”

Interestingly, the researchers found the physiological pressures on the two groups of kids were roughly the same (as measured by such things as heart rate and cortisol level). This suggests the musicians felt as much stress as their colleagues, but didn’t act on it.

This is a small, preliminary study, but it points to yet another benefit of music training. It is consistent with recent Canadian research that found music training helps children mature into caring individuals.

Then again, certain kids may be incorrigible. “In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye,” Donald Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. “I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.”