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Child listening to music on headphones

A new study led by Dr Paddy Ross in our Psychology Department has shown that music can significantly influence emotion recognition in children.

Understanding auditory dominance

This latest research further develops understanding of what is known as ‘child auditory dominance’, where children prioritise what they can hear, rather than what they see, when determining the emotions of a situation.

In this latest research Dr Ross and his team show that auditory dominance in relation to emotional recognition in young children applies to music, as well as human voices (which Dr Ross had previously found in an earlier study).

Importance of sound

The study involved volunteers in three age categories: seven and under, eight to 11, and over 18.

Each group was shown pictures of humans, with faces blurred, depicting happy or fearful emotions while short emotional music bursts of happy or fearful music was played.

Children were significantly worse at recognising emotions in the body when incongruent (emotionally different) musical bursts were being played.

For example, where they could otherwise recognise a fearful body over 80 per cent of the time, this dropped to below 60 per cent when they heard - and were told to ignore - happy musical bursts whilst looking at the people.

Wired for sound

The study indicates that whilst we tend to focus a lot on what children see or what they watch, what they are hearing in a situation could be more important in terms of their emotional understanding and recognition.

The findings could help parents, carers, and even medical professionals to use music as a means of encouraging positive emotional engagement from children in a range of situations.  

For example, playing positive and upbeat music could help children form a positive emotional association with a potentially stressful situation such as a trip to the dentist or even mundane tasks like homework.  

The Durham team now want to look at whether children misunderstand the emotions of characters in stories based on how we read to them.

They also want to explore whether auditory dominance is more pronounced in children with socio-emotional conditions, such as Autism Spectrum Conditions. 

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Psychology at Durham University

Our Department of Psychology prides itself on being a collegiate and welcoming department, committed to success for all who work here. Through dedicated teaching sessions, an optional placement module, external speakers and even an employability retreat – we actively prepare students for working life. We are proud to ranked in the Top 10 Psychology departments in the UK by The Complete University Guide 2022.   

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