Antidote development director Marilyn Tew describes what she learned from a recent seminar on how music education affects student wellbeing.

Music is now more widely available than ever before in human history. Young and old are constantly accompanied by their personal music players. Public spaces are filled with ambient sound and homes are dominated by electronic transmission devices. How does this music influence our emotions, moods and behaviour?

Physiological effects

Music is known to affect a listener in many different ways:

  • through quickened heart rates or increased relaxation
  • by inspiring movement – tapping feet and body swaying
  • through mood and emotional changes
  • by triggering memories.

The fact that music is processed in many different ways, and has physical, emotional and cognitive effects, may be the key to its power.

A recent UK project involved children with emotional and behavioural difficulties who were normally extremely disruptive and found it difficult to concentrate in lessons. The researcher Anne Savan demonstrated that, when Mozart was played during science lessons, the children’s behaviour and concentration improved. Pulse rate, blood pressure and temperature showed significant reductions. She suggested that the physiological changes were due to the brain producing endorphins that lowered blood pressure and adrenalin flow. These slowed the body’s metabolism and improved coordination. 

Managing moods

Slow, quiet music tends to encourage relaxation and reduce anxiety. Stimulating music tends to increase our arousal levels. Minor and major keys are associated respectively with sadness and happiness.

There are also individual effects, according to preferences and musical experience. However, evidence suggests that music can affect our moods, emotions and physiological responses whether or not we like the music.

Music and the intellect

Studies have looked at the effects of music on intellectual skills. Music lessons designed to develop auditory, visual and motor skills have benefited reading skills. Similarly, children receiving extra music lessons kept up with their peers in language and reading skills despite having fewer lessons. Whereas there is a demonstrable positive correlation between taking music and better performance in other subjects, there is nothing to demonstrate that one caused the other.

Music and wellbeing

Certain types of music have sedative qualities. Music has been used to ameliorate symptoms in psychiatric patients. For instance, in the US, playing country and western music led to more appropriate behaviours in the recreation room of a state mental hospital. Children with psychotic symptoms have benefited from music played in the background when they were learning.

Music therapy is often used to develop communication skills and has an effect on personal relationships, emphasising the benefits of active listening and performing. Improvised musical play using music and lyrics has been used to facilitate social play between developmentally delayed and non-developmentally delayed children in mainstream educational settings.

Social skills

There is good evidence that children who are involved in classroom music lessons have shown:

  • increased social cohesion within their class
  • greater self-reliance
  • better social adjustment
  • more positive attitudes.

These effects are particularly noticeable in low-ability and disaffected students. Similarly, children of low economic status who receive individual piano lessons have exhibited greater increases in self-esteem compared with controls.

In a UK study of the impact of the arts in education, the most frequent overall influences on students were reported in relation to personal and social development. In music there were effects relating to awareness of others, social skills and wellbeing.

In adolescence, music contributes to the development of self-identity. Teenagers listen to a great deal of music – typically three hours a day in the UK. Music is used to pass time, alleviate boredom, relieve tension and distract from worries.


There is clearly a role for music in any approach to promoting emotional health and wellbeing in children and young people. Those of us who are interested to create even better environments for learning in UK schools, might like to give some time and thought to the role of music on the development of individual and group social and emotional skills and on its place in creating an ethos that promotes optimal learning.

For more information on the power of music go to