The Kennedy Center
Sound Health: Children's Music Engagement

The Life-Changing Potential of Music Making

For children, practicing and performing music is the very model of a growth mindset—starting where they are and improving from there. One year a beginner might be cracking the code to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star;” the next they’re in an ensemble performing the Shaker classic “Simple Gifts.” They hear a wrong note and they adjust. They miss a beat and fix it next time.

Music naturally rewards self-correction and self-control as well as creativity. Most importantly, young musicians experience the enjoyment and self-empowerment that comes with improving by means of their own dedication and effort. In a sense, it is a gift we learn to give ourselves.

In recent years, scientific research has been catching up to the anecdotal evidence. The upshot is that researchers are proving the social, psychological, intellectual, and physical benefits of musical engagement. Among them, we have learned that music training…

  • increases blood flow to the brain and helps develop new neural pathways.
  • promotes physical coordination and fine-motor skills.
  • bolsters concentration, memory, and recall.
  • fortifies the brain’s executive function that manages critical tasks like
    controlling behavior, processing information, and solving problems.
  • reduces stress and anxiety, boosts mood, and eases depression.
  • builds social bonds and interpersonal skills.
  • helps the brain recover from stroke and brain injury; music therapy has
    even been shown to reduce the need for drugs in pain management.
  • strengthens language and reading skills.

For young children, the connection between musical training and reading is of particular note. A recent peer-reviewed study by Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory—headed by Nina Kraus, PhD—determined that children who actively participated in music training for at least two years showed more improvement in neural processing of language as well as better reading scores when compared to control groups.

One of the big takeaways of Dr. Kraus’s recent work? There is strong correlation between rhythmic facility and language skills. Children who can recognize and match a beat have a much easier time with neural encoding of speech sounds, an ability crucial in the development of phonemic awareness and other elements essential to reading. These findings hold promise for identifying struggling readers for early intervention and support. (For deeper dives into the research, see the “Explore More” links at the bottom of this page.)

Such research-based realizations have guided the development of the Kennedy Center’s Sound Health programs. Getting children and caregivers to clap and drum, play and dance is delightful in and of itself. It may be nature’s way of reminding us that the joy embodied in making music is truly for our own good.

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The Music Studio Between Our Ears

Exploring how our brains work is one of the most compelling areas of modern-day science. Researchers have learned that music is a full-brain exercise that goes much deeper than sound alone. Place sensors around the cranium of a trained musician at play and the brain-imaging lights up like a beautiful summer thunderstorm. Impulses flash across the left and right hemispheres as parts of the brain collaborate in the music-making process.

Music and the Brain

Playing and listening works several areas of the brain:


Strike Up the Brain!

Playing a musical instrument engages many areas of the brain at once, especially the auditory, visual, and motor cortices. And as with any workout, disciplined, structured music practice strengthens brain functions that may allow the application of those strengths to other activities.


The belt and parabelt are located on the right side of the brain. They are mainly responsible for processing a song’s rhythm. When keeping the beat by tapping toes or thumping a drum, the motor cortex and cerebellum get involved.

Pitch and Tone

The recognition of pitch and tone are mainly handled by the auditory cortex, not surprisingly. This part of the brain also does a lot of the heavy lifting to analyze a song’s melody and harmony. Some research shows that the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex pitch in, too.


Our brains develop expectations when listening to a song. For example, they determine if a beat is steady or the melody makes sense. At the same time, our minds have a special appreciation for songs that surprise us with smart, quirky changes. This analysis takes place in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which manages complex processes like reason, logic, problem solving, planning, and memory.


People have an amazing ability to recall music. Chances are you can recognize your favorite song after hearing just a few notes. These memories are stored in the hippocampus.


Performing music, including dancing, is like Crossfit for the brain. Reading music, playing an instrument, and rhythmic movement fires up the cerebellum, motor cortex, sensory cortex, and visual and auditory cortices.


Music has a direct line to our feelings. Three main areas of the brain are responsible for our emotional responses: nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and the cerebellum.

Q & A with Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver

Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver, PhD, is a cognitive neuroscientist at Georgetown University with an expertise in music and childhood development. She collaborated with artists and educators to develop a specific curriculum for the Sound Health: Second Saturdays workshops.


Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver (Photo by Melissa Demple)

Kennedy Center: Personally, how did you become interested in exploring connections between music and brain development?

Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver: As a musician, I have always been fascinated by the question: “How does our brain allow us to make music?” From childhood through the conservatory, as I studied voice and piano, music theory and education, I was always absorbed by specific questions about how the brain processes rhythm, why some people so naturally feel the beat or develop an expert sense of musical timing, as well as questions about what sometimes can go wrong with the musical brain—like when people don’t naturally possess a sense of musicality. These questions plagued me, even kept me up at night! In my second year in university, as I searched tirelessly in the library for answers to my questions for a term paper on cognitive science and rhythm perception, I discovered two important things. First, the answers I was seeking had never before been published! And second, there was a burgeoning field of music brain science—and I could be a part of it. That moment set me on my path to earn a PhD in music neuroscience, and that term paper would be the basis of my passion and scientific research for the next 20 years.

KC: What excites you about your work and the field in general?

JPS: So many things—because the brain is endlessly fascinating, just like discovering music is! But here are two of the most important things that excite me about my work and field right now. First, although the study of music as a window into the human mind, body, and soul has been a source of inspiration since our origins, in just the past several decades, the field of music neuroscience has become a central and valued part of hard scientific study in our society. We now “get” that music is one of the major frontiers of science and medicine—we have plentiful evidence, and dedicated pioneers on the path to discovering WHY we need to keep music in our lives, in our schools, and in our centers for healing. 

As for me, I’ve studied how music shapes the brain from infancy, how musical brain disorders occur (like tone deafness and beat deafness), how rhythm has the power to integrate the brain and body, and what is the exact network of brain regions that allows us to have the very special multisensory experience of music and dance. What most excites me about my work is that everything I learn as a scientist—every experiment, every piece of brain data that I examine—pulls me towards my shining North Star; that is, my unwavering commitment to using the best of our knowledge and wisdom from various perspectives on music to strengthen and heal the human condition.

We know so much about how music shapes us and helps us to live well. For me, now is the time to bring together the scientific knowledge, ancient and intuitive wisdom, and solve real problems in our society. That means answering fascinating, sometimes tough and necessary questions, like, “How do I use music and dance to support my children for optimal development of their brains and bodies?” “Why does it matter whether we incorporate musical arts in our educational institutions and communities?” “How do I know when it is time to look to music as a tool for healing, either for myself or for a loved one?” And, “How do we as a society choose to use music in our attempts to do better, for the next generation of children we are raising, and for our place in the world?” These questions range from quotidian to extraordinary—and they all matter. The ways in which we individually and as a community choose to invest in our musicality are akin to investing in our success and our humanity.

KC: What kinds of activities do you do with your own children?

JPS: First and foremost: we drum on Tupperware, we dance in each other’s arms, and we sing in the bath. This is the bedrock of music formation for young children—that is, we do it actively, we do it together, and we do it every single day. For me, allowing young children to flourish as natural musicians does not require any special qualities or resources.

Our children seek out musical opportunities all the time. Hear them tapping rhythmically on the window pane? Notice the constant stream of singing when they are deeply concentrated in their work of drawing with chalk or building blocks? See them swaying and hopping to a musical beat as you try to walk down the street to your destination? That’s their brains’ and bodies’ natural work at building musical skills, and it’s our primary job to allow and support it. Then there is a wealth of opportunities to show them what’s possible as they grow. Taking them to free public arts performances—which are offered at festivals, cultural arts centers and restaurants, public libraries, and community drum circles, to name a few—so that they get exposed to a wide range of styles and cultures of song, dance and instrumental music. That lets them see that the possibilities are vast, and increases the probability that an individual child will witness a type of music that speaks to them personally. For my daughter, who is 7, engaging in our communities' offerings has led her to choose to study cello, Flamenco dance, and voice, in addition to many fun experiences and classes with African dance, drumming, Hip Hop and Latin Jazz. For my son who is 2, I am watching eagerly for his cues that reveal passion and potential—at this moment, we're still in the Tupperware phase!

KC: What does developmental research show regarding distinctions between children listening to music and children playing music?

JPS: The evidence we have from research studies is consistent with what musicians know—that actively making music is more powerful in terms of brain development than simply listening to music. This is not to say that deliberate listening is not important, however, the ability to make music can change HOW the brain hears and interprets the music. So, for maximum appreciation and growth, engaging in regular music practice is important. 

KC: What is research showing regarding connections between rhythm and language development?

JPS: There is quite a bit of evidence suggesting that not only are rhythm and language abilities related, but that they rely on similar networks of brain regions. Developing rhythmic skills can potentially enhance language and literacy skills, and this is true in various populations—for example, in typical hearing as well as deaf and hearing-impaired children. This is great news for children’s healthy development! What we need now are evidence-based ways of implementing music and rhythm activities into the daily lives and education of those children.

KC: Based on research done so far, does it seem like the benefits of music training apply to vocal training as well as instrumental?

JPS: This is a question that is close to my heart (as a singer), and for which we have less direct evidence, as scientists have tended to study instrumental over vocal music, and only rarely compare the two. I see that trend beginning to change, however, and the best available evidence suggests that there are some components of music practice and skill that are specific to the instrument—for example, drums, piano, trumpet, or voice. That makes sense, if you think about the isolation of the hands and feet of a drummer or pianist, the embouchure of the brass player, or the manipulation of the internal vocal apparatus in a singer. Nevertheless, many of the major abilities that the neuroscience research is highlighting—including rhythmic timing, auditory imagery (the ability to ‘hear’ the sound in the mind’s ear), and entrainment or synchronization between ensemble members—are supported by training in various instruments and genres or traditions of music, including vocal music. So, the benefits of training in any musical domain are vast. To me, it is important that we as scientists recognize the range of abilities that comprise musicality, and then work to understand how specific instruments and styles can bolster particular abilities, and what is the relative potential of each musical ability to transfer to other music domains or cognitive abilities.

KC: Is there a sense of how often people need to practice/perform for there to be benefits?

JPS: This is such an important question, and it probably has a complex answer! Many factors—like age, level of experience, motivation, practice habits, and stress—are likely to play into the equation. If we focus on children, I think we want to try to balance their intrinsic desire and motivation with the development of skills in focus and repetition, and developmentally appropriate levels of challenge. This is a puzzle, and great music mentors deftly maneuver the pieces for each individual student.

As families of blooming young musicians, I think we can take inspiration from our children when they lose themselves in concentration and joy as they begin to master a set of skills: we see that they will spend time daily engaged in their passion. We also sometimes witness that learning and improvement can occur even during times of rest, such as during a break from practice! Whether the equation results in daily or weekly practice for an individual child, I think that by respecting the child’s own needs, while providing adequate support for skill development, we help the child learn to monitor and manage their own growth and improvement as a musician. This ability to self-assess and flourish independently is one of the hallmarks of a great artist, and of a great mind.

KC: How can parents and other caregivers get the most out of the Sound Health programs?

JPS: Parents and caregivers will have direct and online access to the Sound Health event talks, and the Saturday workshops are free and enjoyable for children of all ages. In addition to all of that, the Sound Health programming will provide ongoing opportunities to learn about music and child development throughout the year, so stay tuned for more news and activities for families!

KC: Any words for educators and policymakers?

JPS: My intuition is that many educators and policymakers know that music has the power to affect development and health. What is less clear to me is whether there is a deep understanding of how music can be ingrained into a child’s life and education in ways that not only bolster academic achievement and life success, but that also help reduce social and economic strain. I believe that engagement in musical arts provides both proactive brain growth and preventative health care. This means that music activity promotes optimal intellectual and creative growth and productivity—major assets to our changing society—and helps reduce the risk or progression of numerous medical conditions that carry an enormous economic burden—Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and the effects of premature birth, to name three. So my words to those who are in a position to influence education and effect policy change, are: pay attention to the points of converging evidence from science and medicine on the power of music to enable proactive brain growth and preventative health care. This is a major frontier for new social and economic growth in our country.

Explore More

Online Resources

These links lead to turn-key activities and games to engage young learners with music.

Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers (Ages 0-6)

Grade School (Ages 5-9)

Middle Grades (Ages 10+)


Take Action: Simple Anywhere, Anytime Music Moments

Bathtub, dinner table, or car—age-level music moments can be made wherever we sense a song or beat. Try improvising on these simple musical games that play with rhythm, pitch, and call-and-response. 

Rhythm: Lay down a simple four-count walking beat on the steering wheel or table top. If age-appropriate, cue your child to match it. Once they’ve got the beat, drum simple variations like Mississippi Hot Dog and Strawberry Strawberry. This activity can also be done as dance steps.

Pitch: Listen for notes in the environment, like a hum of a refrigerator or a cat’s meow. Match the pitch with your voice and cue the kids to join in and hold the note. If age-appropriate, ask them to pick out other sing-able sounds around them. After some practice, you can try adding harmonies. You can also demonstrate octave jumps, complete with funny faces.

Call-and-Response: Singing or playing together is one of the chief joys of music, and involves practicing skills of listening and self-regulation. Demonstrate a short call—a song snippet or rap. Have them sing or rap it back to you, trying to match rhythm and pitch.  As they gain confidence, have them create the call for you to respond to. You can cue up "Boom Chicka Boom" or Otis Redding's "Shout" for inspiration.

A final note: Want to keep the joy in music? Chuckle at the unavoidable mistakes, especially your own. A laugh in lieu of a scowl makes any blooper a learning moment instead of a trigger for self-consciousness. 

Support for Sound Health is provided by The Music Man Foundation.

Sound Health is also presented as part of The Irene Pollin Audience Development and Community Engagement Initiatives

Major support for educational programs at the Kennedy Center is provided by David M. Rubenstein through the Rubenstein Arts Access Program.


© 2018 The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts