Mind & Body

For a Closer Parent-Child Bond, Listen to Music Together

Family road trip! There's no better way to bond with your loved ones. Playing road games like "I Spy" and "20 Questions," stopping at chintzy roadside attractions, and singing songs off the radio at the top of your lungs — assuming you can stand to hear your dad belting out "Teenage Wasteland!" from the driver's seat. Regardless of how you feel about your parents' musical abilities, that Who-fueled interlude might be responsible for the best parts of your family relationships.

Pump Up the Fams

When you think of a family singalong, your mind might conjure images of small children and their young parents singing "Wheels on the Bus." That's a healthy part of any childhood. But according to new research from the University of Arizona, if you really want to bond over music, you're going to have to turn up the volume when your kids are pre-teens and older.

For a study published in April in the Journal of Family Communication, researchers asked adult participants (average age 21, so we're smelling mostly undergrads) about specific memories they had of musical activities with their parents. That includes things like singing along to the radio, going out to a concert, or dancing in the kitchen. They were then asked about their relationship with their parents. Across the board, people who remembered jamming out with Mom and/or Dad reported a much closer relationship with their parents, and the effect was strongest for those whose musical montages ran through their adolescent years.

Why would listening to music together have such an effect? The researchers think there might be a few different factors at play. First of all, the heightened impact that music has on adolescent kids might just be a matter of it being rare — group songs at that age are a lot less commonplace than they are for small kids. The shared experience might take on more significance by virtue of how infrequently it occurs. Second, there's the matter of coordination and empathy. Dancing in sync is known to draw people closer together — in some schools, dance classes are used specifically to foster empathy between kids. Clearly, the same effect can be seen in parents and children dancing together, and it could have an effect that lingers into adulthood.

Coming in Early

So maybe parent-child singalongs fill teens with feelings of familial closeness because it's such a change of pace from the normal parent-teen relationship. According to another ongoing study, sharing a musical moment is great for parents as well. In this case, the researchers were specifically looking into how music can bring parents closer to their premature infants. According to a 2014 study, babies that spend their first days in the neonatal care units (NICU) often used for premature infants score lower on language development tests and show decreased brain development at two years old. Researchers from the University of Maryland thought they might be able to counteract this effect by exposing these little ones to language, like songs and nursery rhymes, at an early age.

They tested that hypothesis with a program called "Mother Goose on the Loose," which focused on storytelling experiences for babies and toddlers. With the "Goslings" offshoot, parents were taught newborn-friendly variations on nursery rhymes that they could sing to their little ones without fear of overstimulation — instead of "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands," they'd sing "Since I love you very much, I'll hold your hand." Sure, the baby probably doesn't speak English very well yet, but by communicating with their infant through song, the parents seem to strengthen their own feelings of attachment. Not enough time has passed to see if the Goslings program was able to counteract the negative language effects of the NICU, but parents reported feeling closer to their babies as a result — and nurses said they've seen those same parents being more responsive as well.

Music is more than the songs that you and your kids can share. Introduce your whole family to the world of melody in David Byrne's "How Music Works" (free with a trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Why Does Music Move Us?

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Steven Pinker calls music "auditory cheesecake." We didn't evolve to love cheesecake specifically; we evolved to love anything sweet or high-calorie, so cheesecake is a side-effect of our evolution. Music, likewise, is a side effect of our need for language and a sense of our surroundings. 00:46

  2. A study by neuroscientist Talia Wheeley found that we may read emotion in music the same way we read emotion in human movement. 02:20

  3. Just as we can sense emotion by watching someone walk or dance, we can identify when a song is happy or sad. Music seems to move us because we move. 04:01

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 24, 2018

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