Are you afraid you're raising a little delinquent? Is your eight- or nine-year-old lacking in sympathy for others, and unwilling to provide needed help? Perhaps what your kid needs is just 10 months with a ukulele.
According to recently published research, third- and fourth-graders in Canada who initially scored low in sympathy and helpfulness developed those qualities at above-average rates if they took group music lessons for a full school year.
These particular lessons featured group performances on the ukulele, "an affordable and child-friendly instrument," notes a research team led by psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto–Mississauga. Playing the ukulele with others helped kids with attitude and behavior issues mature into more caring individuals—a welcome effect that occurred whether the class was mandatory or voluntary.
Perhaps the instrument should be re-named a You-kulele, since it helps behaviorally challenged children shift their orientation from "me" to "you."
The results provide further evidence that music "fosters social cohesion, cooperation, and a pro-social orientation," the researchers write in the online journal PLoS One, and are consistent with a 2010 study that found singing and marching in unison produced increased cooperation among German pre-schoolers.
This Canadian study featured 84 third- and fourth-graders enrolled in public school. Family income and parents' education level varied widely. Roughly half the participants took a weekly 40-minute music class that lasted an entire school year; the others "attended schools in neighborhoods with similar socioeconomic status, but without the enhanced music program."
The program, developed in the 1970s, features a mix of group singing and playing, improvisation, ear training, and sight reading. The kids performed a wide repertoire, including arrangements for the ukulele of classical music, jazz, folk songs, and pop songs. "Children who learn readily are encouraged to 'show your neighbor'—to pass on what they know to other students," the researchers note.
At the beginning and end of the school year, the children took a series of tests designed to measure vocabulary, pro-social skills (sample question: "Do you share things with others?"), ability to read emotions in a person's face, and sympathy for others. That final quality was measured by the kids' responses to statements such as "When I see another child who is hurt or upset, I feel sorry for them. Does this sound like you?"
The researchers found students who took the 10-month music class "had larger increases in sympathy and pro-social behavior" than those who had not. "This effect was limited to children who had poor pro-social skills before the lessons began," they add.
Importantly, these results were consistent for both subsets of music students: The 38 for whom music lessons were a part of the mandatory curriculum, and the 10 for whom they were an elective. This means one concern with studies of this sort—that music lessons attract kids who are mature and socially oriented, potentially skewing the results—is not a factor here.
Schellenberg and his colleagues propose two possible mechanisms driving these positive results. The first is the fact that children in the music class interacted frequently, and the instructors cultivated a culture in which it was natural to assist struggling peers.
"Such collaboration may improve children's social bonds ... raising their motivation to provide support for others, and their willingness to receive help from others," the researchers write. (They add that "other activities that emphasize group interaction and cooperation, such as drama lessons, could lead to similar benefits.")
The second is the synchronicity inherent to playing and singing together. Like the adult choral singers who were the subject of another recent study, the kids taking music lessons were performing in unison—an activity that has long been linked to greater bonding and what the researchers refer to as "other-oriented emotions."
Either way, the budding musicians perceived themselves as more sympathetic and helpful. Perhaps the instrument should be re-named a You-kulele, since it helps behaviorally challenged children shift their orientation from "me" to "you."
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.