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Music or Magic?

By Dinah Torres Castro

How many parents have sweetly and politely asked their three year olds to clean up their toys and waited to no avail? Yet, those same parents can come into the room where the three year olds are playing and simply start singing that familiar clean up song, and magically those children start picking up toys and putting them away. It’s a magic trick we’ve seen pre-school teachers use time and again. It’s not really magic, it is the music. We know that getting children involved with music, whether listening, playing instruments, singing, or dancing, has many benefits for a child’s physical, mental, emotional, and social development. Children learn to coordinate fine motor movements of the hands when learning an instrument. Dancing helps the coordination of larger muscle groups of the whole body. Also, consider the mental and cognitive benefits that music contributes to when a child learns to read, like pairing symbols with letters and meanings. Music, itself, is a new language. What does “forte” really mean, or how about “adagio”? It is through music that we somehow translate all of this into a motor command for our fingers or voice.

Think about the emotional responses we have to music. Music is a mechanism to appropriately express feelings. Toddlers learn “If you’re happy and you know it!” and teenagers can explore an entire world of emotions just listening to radio. Finally, making music together teaches children how to work together to produce a final masterpiece.

There is no part of the human brain that isn’t involved with music. So, what is it specifically about music that holds this power over human behavior? How can music encourage a toddler to clean up or help them learn their ABCs, and why does this even matter? It all starts with the rhythmic and harmonic structure of music, and how the brain processes this signal. First, by nature music is a “cleaner” signal. There is less noise in a music signal than in a speech signal. And the brain likes a “clean” signal, especially a developing brain. Second, precise temporal stimulation of neural structures (brain cells) leads to plasticity (making new connections in the brain, i.e. learning). Music is a highly organized rhythmic structure that allows for synchronization of multiple brain areas. Most importantly, listening to music increases dopamine, a chemical made in the brain that acts as a messenger between brain cells. Dopamine is important for many of our daily behaviors and plays a role in how we learn. By stimulating the brain with a clear and synchronized signal (like music), along with an increase in dopamine, we have what is needed for neural plasticity (i.e. learning).

Thinking back to that three year old cleaning up when she hears the song, we can now make the connection. Knowing that singing was a clear signal that was easier for the child to process and make the association, regardless if she processed the meaning of the actual words or just the musical tune, we can now understand why the child started cleaning up when she heard the song. Likewise, that’s how we learn the ABCs as we sing the song. Music synchronized neural activity, along with increased dopamine, and established new connections for alphabet order. Now, just imagine how many neural connections are being made by playing an instrument, dancing, and making music as a group! I guess music is the real magic– brain magic!

Adapted from the Science of Parenting: Is it Magic? Or is it Music? By Elizabeth Stegemöller, PhD and Board Certified Music Therapist from the ISU Kinesiology Department.


Dinah Castro is a Bilingual Family Well-Being Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program. She can be reached at 631-727-7850 ext. 351 or at


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