Even in the 12 years since I’ve started teaching elementary music, I’ve noticed a steep decline in what our young kids know, both musically and socially. From folk songs to nursery rhymes, they are losing their musical and cultural awareness in favor of 20-second clips of catchy, but shallow, melodies.

One of the areas I knew would be a struggle when I entered the teaching field was in sharing classical music. I knew, even then, that our kids don’t listen to it as much as they used to, and while I don’t advocate for using complex pieces exclusively, I believe it’s critical to expose and guide our students on a musical journey through these deep and meaningful genres.

Why? For me, it comes down to these 5 reasons why classical music is important for young kids to listen to in and out of the classroom.

#1 Aids In Brain Development

As we’ve long suspected, listening to music actually improves academic function. As teachers, we want our students to do well in all areas, and it’s these statistics that get the most traction with administrators. While I think this reason is nowhere near as important as the emotional stability and deeper love music listening provides, it’s a good place to start.

Cockerton, Moore, and Norman found that students who listened to classical music as background music during a cognitive test were able to answer more questions and get more questions right than those in the control group.

Research on the effect on older individuals is more inconclusive, but in youth, the impact is seen clearly. Gur found that 6-year-olds who listened to classical music did much better on a cognitive drawing task compared to those who listened to none.

#2 Classical Music Builds Personal Connection To World History

The world and our history are an ever-changing place, but those who have looked at history notice patterns appearing over and over. Our students lack this recognition. In looking at why, I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of connection to those people of the past. To our students, it’s impossible to relate with them.

When I have my students listen to, move, read, or play along with classical excerpts, I always tie it into its place in history. It all becomes so much more real to the young people when they realize that Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was written for Napoleon and came out around the same time when America made the Louisiana Purchase. This deeper personal connection and context makes the other historical events and lessons seem much more real and immediate to them.

#3 Develops A Deeper Repertoire Of Musical Preference

As a kid from the age of 5, I only ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. All I knew were sandwiches, and I had them every day for lunch when I went to school. In my mind, the only good sandwich was a PBJ. Obviously, I know that’s not true today, but my point is this: If all you do is eat one food, read one type of book, or listen to one style of music, you’ll only love that one, single kind.

Our young people don’t know classical music at all, so they’re reluctant to try it. They see classical works as a turkey sandwich with cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato and think it’s disgusting. Why? Because they don’t know any better.

By guiding them into a positive experience with classical pieces, they’ll begin to push their boundaries. They’ll realize that not all music is the same, and they’ll begin to explore all sorts of different genres and styles. Classical music may not be their favorite! That’s one of the great things about humans; we all like different things.

Until you explore and try new things for yourself, you’ll never know what you truly like.

#4 Improves Emotional Stability

Everyone who loves classical music and wants to share it has their personal preference for why they do so. For me, it’s because listening to and making more complex music encourages emotional stability in most people.

Baumgartner, Esslen, and Jancke found in their study on the heart rates of people looking at emotional images that the presence of classical music while looking resulted in increased emotional response. This shows how music enhances and influences your emotional response. Siraguas et al. discovered that heart rate and skin conductance lowered and stabilized while listening to relaxing music, such as some classical pieces.

The impact of music on emotions and the physiological response isn’t limited to adults or even kids.

Amini et al. looked at music’s effect on hospitalized preterm infants and found listening reduced heart rate and respiratory rate to a significant degree. The effect went away when they stopped playing the music too.

The world is a tough and scary place for all of us, adults and kids alike. They need all the help they can get with emotional regulation, and if classical music is one of these tools, then it’s imperative we help them however we can.

#5 Challenges Their Listening And Musical Understanding

One of the reasons many people don’t listen to classical music is because it’s overwhelming for them. The pieces are longer, the textures are richer, and the harmonies and form are much more complex. Popular music is great, but it’s so much simpler and easily digestible. If we want people to grow up with more grit and greater musical stamina, we need to share more complex music with them early on. It’ll help their ears and brain get ready for more complexity. Plus, as students get better at performing the more complex pieces will enhance their skills.

It all starts with listening. Find some pieces you love in smaller, digestible chunks and share them with young people. It doesn’t have to be a big lesson, and it doesn’t have to be all the time. Every little bit we can do adds up.

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 Music Teacher in Michigan and the founder of Dynamic Music Room, a music resource website for music teachers, parents, and musicians of all types.

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