Benefits of Musical Play

First and foremost I am a musician. Music is not what I do, it is who I am. I could no sooner stop being musical than stop breathing. It has been in me since birth.

I am adopted, in fact, all of my siblings are also adopted – all 5 of us. Growing up, even though all children learned the piano, I was the one who took to it, who ended up making a career out of it and just loved all things musical.

I always wondered where that musicality came from. I had wonderful parents. There was never a time any of us didn’t know we were adopted and my parents would opening thank our biological parents for having us as that meant they could have us in their family. I never yearned to know my biological family as I never felt a void, but I did wonder about such things as medical history and where my musicality came from. It was obvious it came from somewhere and that has intrigued me.

Late in my life, my biological mother found me, and I learned that my father was 1/2 Maori. She says she doesn’t have a musical bone in her body but then I knew where it came from. The musical culture of the islanders is in my DNA and I had a wonderful mother (who loves music) who saw that in me and nurtured that talent.

As I fell into early childhood education, special needs and later sound therapy, the world of music became more important to me as I studied the impact it had on children, their relationships and cognitive development.

We are now seeing studies coming out proving what I have seen for years and now that we have new equipment to test in ways we never could before, we are just hitting the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know about the brain and especially babies and what they learn and how.

Unstructured Breaks from Cognitive Tasks Improve Learning and Attention


The “Lego Study” as it has become known was a study of the importance of play in children. As a part of that, it looked at musical play and the conclusions several studies from all over the world had come to.

Kirschner & Tomasello (2010) showed that the prosocial behaviour (helping each other and co-operating) of a group of 5-6-year old children who took part in a musical play activity improved to a significantly greater extent than that of a group who took part in non-musical play.

I have also found in my own teaching that this occurs but that the musical play doesn’t always have to have pitch attached. As long as rhythm is present (for example swinging together) then the benefits of increased sharing and cooperation occurred. Research has also found this to be true but went further to conclude that the interaction doesn’t need to be long. That children more readily share resources following a short reciprocal rhythmical interaction (Barragan and Dweck, 2014)

Putkinen, Tervaniemi & Huotilainen (2013) showed that children who experienced higher levels of informal musical activities in the home appeared more sensitive to subtle changes in sounds, and showed a reduced activation in response to the appearance of novel sounds, which meant they were less surprised and distracted by these unusual sounds than children from less musical homes.

This makes total sense to me. As a sound therapist, the more exposure children have to musical experiences (structured or unstructured) and the more varied the experiences, the greater the auditory processing abilities which relates directly to the above statement.

The Lego study pulled from studies from all over the world, so the results are not just common to musical cultures such as Islanders, but are experienced by all children no matter where they live. Here were the demographics from the study:

So What Does This Mean For Parents and Educators?

Several things can be taken from this study to help educators everyday. Whether you are in childcare, early childhood classrooms or caring for babies in a nursery.

The #1 take away is that music is essential. Music helps us learn in all sorts of ways including but not restricted to:

  • Music experiences (whether structured or unstructured) help us with language. The ability to process sound is essential for language acquisition and both rhythm and pitch are needed for language.
  • The more a child is exposed to music the better language is going to be
  • Experiences a short rhythmic episode together helps children be more cooperative and they share more easily. It doesn’t have to involved pitch (but it could) and the activity could be be either synchronous or asynchronous .
  • Children who experience lots of music in the home (whether structured or unstructured) have better auditory processing skills and are less bothered by noises that may come by surprise.

Other key takeaways were:

• there is evidence associating physical play of various kinds with academic progress and cognitive self-regulation, and with social competence;
• there is evidence that unstructured breaks from cognitive tasks improve learning and attention

Play is essential. I live in a state where years ago they thought it was a good idea to remove all play based learning from our pre-schools to increase academic performance. Now, in line with the new research, they are painstakingly putting back all the play based learning because removing it didn’t work, in fact, it made scores worse.

Play is essential to children, but musical play has added benefits. You don’t have to be an opera singer, or even a musician – think rhythm. Swinging, moving together in a coordinated way, free dance, making up silly nursery rhymes and playing with language to familiar songs. All musical play is good play and the benefits are far more than we realize.

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