Is background music helpful or harmful?
Parents are often shocked to learn that background TV can be detrimental to children’s development. In many homes, background TV is like the soundtrack for everyday life and seems quite benign.
So it comes as quite a shock to most parents to discover that background TV can have some unintended and undesirable consequences for young children. (So please don’t fret if you didn’t know this.)
Much like second-hand smoke leaving the TV on when it’s not being watched is. not good for little ones. Background TV can interfere with their play patterns and changes the ways parents communicate with their children. So it can hamper their language skills and disrupt their attention.
So it’s only natural that parents then ask about background music. Is it okay if the radio is on, or I listen to CDs?
Is background music helpful or harmful for my child?
This isn’t an easy question to answer because we don’t have a definitive answer from the research, especially when it comes to young children. Music has three broad effects on children:
(i) It distracts their attention;
(ii) It arouses them; and
(iii) It alters their mood.
So music can help or hinder depending on the types of the task your child is engaged in and the type of music being played.
What we know about background music
1. Repetitive, low-level tasks benefit from music– upbeat music, with or without lyrics can improve efficiency and accuracy (however, it’s important to note that this finding is based on factory workers’ performance on assembly lines). If lyrics are used they should be familiar or boring for the listener! We don’t want their mind wandering or processing new language.
2. Zen-like music for high concentration– When children need to really concentrate, monotonous, “zen-like” background music may promote better performance. The trick is to find music that allows children to focus, without distracting them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Mozart!
3. Keep it slow and soft– the evidence suggests that children’s cognitive performance is not compromised if background music is slow and soft. Play carefully selected music at appropriate levels. Relaxing background music is less likely to interfere with processing other information. Again, make sure it’s familiar music so their mind doesn’t wander.
4. Keep it familiar– popular music with lyrics might interfere with children’s play. Play popular music when your child doesn’t need to intently focus or when they aren’t playing.
5. Keep it age-appropriate– When I was a Kindergarten teacher, I’ll never forget the day a 5 year-old boy started singing “My socks are on fire” (instead of the correct lyrics- “Sex on Fire”) while he was working at his desk! Little children are absorbing language and concepts, even if they don’t appear to be understanding everything. If you don’t want to fret about disc-jockeys might say when you’re driving your children around in the car, or if the radio is on at home, then use CDs or music streaming services where you can select children’s content. If you’re after age-appropriate audio content, check out Kinderling. It is digital radio for babies, toddlers and school-aged children (and their parents).
Silence is also important
It’s important to note that young children also need to experience silence (or as close to you can get with little ones in your house). They need opportunities throughout their day where there’s little or no stimulus. They need opportunities to hear the birds and the background hum of “everyday life”.
There are obviously significant individual differences in how children respond to music. Some children will prefer silence, where other children find it unsettling. You need to figure out what works best for your child.
Generally, you don’t need to fret as much about background music as you do about background TV. In a nutshell, slow, soft and familiar music is likely to be okay for your little one.
In the comments below, does your little one like listening to background music? What music do they enjoy?
(1) Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35(1), 5-19.
(2) Kiger, D. (1989). Effects of music information load on a reading comprehension task. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 69, 531-534.
(3) Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. (1997). Cognitive test performance and background music. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 85, 1435-1438.
(4) Anderson, S. A., & Fuller, G. B. (2010). Effect of music on reading comprehension of junior high school students. School Psychology Quarterly, 25 (3), 178-187.
(5) Johansson, R., Homqvist, K., Mossberg, F., & Lindgren, M. (2011). Eye movements and reading comprehension while listening to preferred and non-preferred study music.Psychology of Music, 40 (3), 339-356.
I talk to parents throughout Australia about screen-time and how parents can help their children use technology in healthy and helpful ways (and also minimise any potential risks). If you’re interested in having me speak at your pre-school, school local council or community group, Click here to find out more.