Music Impacts Child Development: Q&A With Dr. Beatriz Ilari

Music Childhood Development

By Michelle Rodriguez, Groove Contributor

Music! From what we know, every culture has it. We use music to celebrate, to mourn, to build connections. Whether we recognize it or not, music plays a significant role in our lives, and as it turns out, it has a substantial impact on your child's emotional and social development. But what kind of music, who has access, and how can music aid healthy child development?

We spoke to talk to Dr. Beatriz Ilari to learn what music can do for a child's development. Dr. Beatriz Ilari is an Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Southern California who has an extensive history of music and how it impacts child cognition and behavior. She has orchestrated a multitude of fascinating studies related to child development including, but not limited to, children's musical experiences and expressions through singing and performing and natural retention of a complex piece of music in 8-month old babies. Currently, she researches music and social development in preschoolers in North America.


Humans are born musically. Young children take great delight in moving, vocalizing, singing, [and] inventing tunes. Music is also a way for children to express themselves, accompanying their daily lives.

- Dr. Beatriz Ilari


Q: Do you think that informal musical training can be just as valuable as formal training when it comes to cognitive development?

A: Sound and music are pervasive and children will engage with them in multiple ways. Sometimes they will engage musically with deliberate intention (e.g., a child initiates a song to accompany some aspect of play). Other times, their musical participation will happen in a reactive way (e.g., a child might notice a song playing in the back and suddenly get up and move). Studies examining the potential effects on formal music education on prosociality, for example, are only beginning to emerge.


Q: Are there any common misconceptions you’ve noticed about music education and incorporating it into a child’s life?

A: It may sound like a cliché, but music should always be part of children's natural propensity to discover the world. Again, music teaching and learning should not be completely divorced from children's everyday lives.


Q: Do you think all parents/ caregivers of different backgrounds and incomes can incorporate music into their child’s life?

A: Parents, regardless of background or income, have been incorporating music into children's lives in varied ways. This is because music learning begins with families at home. Parents are often responsible for setting up the musical environment in which children will grow. Some parents will sing for their children or dance with them. Others will enroll children in early childhood music programs. Still, others will buy music-related gadgets and toys. And some will just let children listen to the musical sounds of the world in a very organic fashion. In my view, this is not a question of income, but a question of interest in music


Q: We have worked on a dance program for 10 years to boost children’s social, emotional, and cognitive skills and have seen positive results from our program, Design Dance. Do you think art programs such as dance, music, art etc. positively aid child development?

A: The arts (more generally) help children understand different ways of being in the world. Aside from developing specific dance, music or painting techniques, children develop their senses, have opportunities to collaborate with others, learn to take turns, to consider and respect different ideas.  While research continues to answer our questions about the relationships between the arts and cognitive development, there is no doubt in my mind of the "effects" of the arts in children's lives. What can be more powerful than the image of a child moving in space to a particular piece of music, completely consumed by the beauty of her own art and imagination?

[This interview has been condensed. You can learn more about Dr. Beatriz Ilari and her work here.]

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