Adolescence is hard. Raging hormones, changing bodies, ever-shifting social dynamics, harder school work, the pressure of college looming a few years away. You might have blocked out your teenage years, but if you haven’t—or if you happen to have saved a middle or high school journal—you’ll remember (or discover with a mix of horror and nostalgia, as the case may be) that you were probably a mess of emotions, everything in the world seemingly hinging on whether you got into a certain club, or got asked to a dance, or got a good grade. These ups and downs have only been exacerbated during the extreme stress of the pandemic. Where is the release from family when you are literally stuck inside with them at all times? How can you truly connect with friends when everything is necessarily filtered through the dispiriting lens of social media? How can you fully express yourself when you are locked inside? Don’t worry: music has you covered.
As we’ve discovered through the “Benefits of Music” series, music has near magical effects on newborns, infants, toddlers, elementary school kids, and even babies still in the womb. And the effects don’t have some cut-off as soon as you hit puberty: music is as beneficial and honestly life-saving for teens as for any other age group. And here’s the how and why:
Emotional Connection & Identity Formation
Many people have pondered the fact that music you discovered and listened to in your teens sounds better to you than any music you have heard since. Mark Joseph Stern, writing for Slate in 2014, aptly captured this phenomenon, explaining that music—especially music we like—stimulates a release of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. And in fact, the more we like a song, the more these “feel good” neurochemicals are release. And in young people, this process gets amped up to the next level: “Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important–especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams…”
So, as a parent, you may not love your teen listening to hard core metal, or even saccharine pop, but that music is likely providing them with an incredible feeling of connection and of being seen. In fact, teens are actively forming their identities during this time, and the music they listen to helps them do this, supporting them in understanding why they may be feeling a certain way, that it’s okay to feel a certain way, and that there are ways of being that they may not have thought possible.
Self Esteem Boosting
One possible outcome of all the changes happening during adolescence can be a sharp drop in self-esteem. The person a child thought they were is gone, and someone new—with hair in weird places, a different voice, an unrecognizable body—has taken their place. Luckily, music can not only help kids feel their identities validated; it has also been scientifically proven to boost self-esteem: A Northern Ireland study found that music therapy helped increase self-esteem and reduced depressive symptoms in children with emotional, behavioral or developmental challenges.
A lot of music listening in adolescence is done alone—especially now, during the pandemic, but also just because of things like headphones, Spotify, and smart phones. But a big part of why music is so emotional for teens is also because of the social aspect of it: often teens learn about new music or new artists through their friends. It is a way of bonding with other teens who may be going through the same emotional, psychological, and identity struggles. Mark Joseph Stern quotes Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, as saying that “We are discovering music on our own for the first time when we’re young…often through our friends. We listen to the music they listen to as a badge, as a way of belonging to a certain social group. That melds the music to our sense of identity.”
And playing music with peers opens up a whole other world of social connection: whether in school band, choir, a homegrown brand, orchestra, or group lessons, being part of a group centered around music fosters inclusivity and a sense of belonging at the same time that it stimulates all those pleasure-inducing, empathy-generating neurochemicals. And having to work as a team to create something together—something that that teen already has such a strong emotional connection to—is uniquely powerful.
You may have thought humans are done learning language much earlier than their teenage years—second grade, perhaps? Third, at the latest?—and that from then, it’s just vocabulary acquisition. But brain function is still evolving until your early twenties (in fact, npr.org reported on science that says most people don’t reach brain maturity until age 25), which means there’s still an opportunity to exercise and enhance that functioning. A study led by Dr. Nina Kraus at Northwestern found that the brains of high school students who received 3 hours of music training per week “were physically wired to process sound more efficiently than the brains of the students who received fitness training.” The study also found that the music-trained students were better at picking out speech sounds in spoken words, an important skill that has also been linked to reading ability. That brain is definitely still developing—so give it a work out!
If your teen can find a way to play music with others right now, fantastic. If they’re listening to the same song while on a FaceTime or Zoom with friends, still great. And even if they’re just in their room by themselves, headphones one, deeply connecting to some sound waves, they are still gaining language skills, boosting self-esteem, and becoming themselves.