Monday, March 03, 2008

The Effects of Music in Our Lives


Amy Osmond

Have you ever protested a song your child was singing, and you heard him say, “Mom, it’s just a song?” That happened to me with my five-year-old! The other day, my little kindergartener, Maia, was narrating her life in song. While I can’t remember the exact words, she sang something like “I’m mad that you won’t let me stay up late; some people don’t like me, and my mom punished me.” I walked into her room, heard the song, and said, “Maia, that’s not true at all!” She replied matter-of-factly, “Mom, it’s just a song.” Then she went back to singing her sad, sad autobiographical narrative.

Well, as adults, we know that music is not “just a song.” In academic journals, music has been found to affect everything from listening to reading comprehension to stress to brain activity to blood pressure to depression—and the list goes on and on (Palmer et al., 1991; Angelucci et al., 2007).

But how does music affect the lives of our children? When we think of music in the context of our children, we often think about the deleterious effects that it can have in their lives. From my perspective there are a few things we can do to help our children choose good music.

First, remember that music can have multiple interpretations. My father is Wayne Osmond, one of the Osmond family. In the 1970s, the Osmond Brothers’ musical career reached its peak with several hit records. One of the most influential songs of their career was a song that the brothers wrote called “Crazy Horses.” Considered heavy for its time, it was banned in Africa because it was thought to be about drug abuse. In reality, “crazy horses” was about fast cars, with “horse” referring to horsepower.”

It can work the other way, however. I remember one of my favorite songs a couple of years ago was an R&B song called, “Suga Suga, How you get so fly.” I even put it on a CD that I made for my husband, Jeff. As I listened to the song more, the lyrics started becoming more clear--and they were really risque. Now I can’t hear the song without thinking about those lyrics; and if I, as an adult, am affected by musical lyrics, our impressionable children and teenagers most certainly are.

Like my previous example, in today’s age, lyrics are often sexually explicit and thinly veiled, if at all. But there is still some room for interpretation, and different music can affect different people in different ways. An interesting study in 2007 reported that listening to self-selected or classical music, after exposure to a stressor, significantly reduced negative emotional states and physiological arousal compared to listening to heavy metal music or sitting in silence (Labbe et al., 2007). It actually didn’t matter what kind the music was, as long as it was self-selected. So when your children say that rock music helps them relax, maybe it actually does.

Second, you can find good and bad music in every genre. My father is a pop-turned-rock-turned-country-turned-variety music singer. My mother is an opera singer. Between the two of them and my own training as a classical musician, I have been exposed to practically every type of music possible. I have to admit that I find some rock music to be absolutely beautiful, some hip-hop music to be politically and socially profound, and some modern instrumental music to be—dare I say it---absolute garbage. The key is being able to differentiate between the good and the bad. By bad, I mean degrading to the soul.

So how do we help our children avoid degrading music? Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and President of the LDS Church, Ezra Taft Benson, in a 1979 address at Brigham Young University, offered some guidelines to help us evaluate whether media is degrading. While he was speaking mostly of books in this address, it applies to music, as well. I quote:

Today, with the abundance of books available, it is the mark of a truly educated man to know what not to read [or listen to] … As John Wesley’s mother counseled him: ‘Avoid [1] whatever weakens your reason, [2] impairs the tenderness of your conscience, [3] obscures your sense of God, [4] takes off your relish for spiritual things, … [5] increases the authority of the body over the mind. . . Do not make your mind a dumping ground for other people’s garbage. It is harder to purge the mind of rotten reading than to purge the body of rotten food, and it is more damaging to the soul. (Benson, 1980)

Third, consider the culture and the context in which music is performed. I currently teach an American Pop Culture class at Arizona State University. Music is obviously a very important part of popular culture. One of the most interesting things about music in pop culture is its ability to be mainstreamed and co-opted by the public. Jazz, for example, was once considered a degenerate form of music. Even the term “Jazz” was a slang term for “sex.” Over time, however, the word lost its connotative meaning and became mainstreamed into larger segments of society. Now, Jazz is a part of high culture, often associated with the intellectual and upper class.

Other music can take more degenerate turns. Hip hop music, for example, began in the black community as a musical outlet to promote political and social change. In recent years, however, as hip hop music has, again, become mainstreamed, much of the positive social message is gone from its lyrics, replaced by a dominant focus on the party scene, with sex, drugs, and violence being key features.

When considering what music to allow in your home, I believe it is very important to determine what the culture surrounding it promotes. One example is an emerging form of music, called Hyphy, which is a type of hip-hop music based largely in the San Francisco Bay area. This type of music is fun to listen to with its up-tempo beat, but it is heavily associated with the party scene. One particular feature of hyphy culture is a “sideshow,” where one or more cars does multiple doughnuts by braking and turning at high speeds. Hyphy participants also practice “yoking,” or driving while quickly alternating between stomping on the gas and brake, and “ghost riding the whip,” where a driver walks alongside a slow-rolling car with the door open, while passengers leap out of moving cars and dance on the hood. Hyphy culture also focuses heavily on alcohol use, as well as drugs like cannabis and ecstasy. Dancing and partying almost always occurs while intoxicated.

So, if your teenager starts sporting saggy jeans, white t-shirts and “stunna shades” and says to you, “Mom, we’re gonna take the scraper and go to the yay to get stupid with grapes and rippers,” say “Absolutely not!” And take away their hyphy music.

My point is that, as parents, we need to educate ourselves about our children’s music and the culture it is associated with, so we can help them make good judgments about their music.

Finally, remember to focus on the beauty that music can bring to our children’s lives, as well as our own. In 1939, French composer Oliver Messiaen was taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to a war camp but managed to keep his music bag. In the camp, he found moments for reading in the Revelation of St. John, the story of the angel who, his head surrounded by a rainbow, his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot upon the earth, announced the end of time. So Messiaen, to whom a non-Nazi officer occasionally gave a piece of bread, music paper and pencils, wrote a quartet called the Quattuor pour la fin du temps. It was even performed in the camp, on a piano with jamming keys, a cello with only three strings, and a clarinet with a molten key, and a violin. The quartet was an action which maintained dignity—a real action, written and performed, but at the same time also a symbolic one, integrating past with present, defying barbarism, transforming ugliness, maintaining a framework of subjective values against deficient reality” (Boesch, 1997, pp. 428-29). In short, Messiaen’s musical gifts combined with religious commitment allowed him to bring beauty to an ugly place.

In conclusion, music has the ability to affect our children’s lives significantly. And in helping them decide and monitor their music selections, we should remember that music can have multiple interpretations; good and bad music can be found in every genre; the culture and context in which the music is performed is perhaps even more important than the music, itself; and a positive and proactive approach to music can help us find and create music that uplifts us and brings beauty to our lives.


Angelucci, F., Ricci, E., Padua, L., Sabino, A., & Tonali, P. (2007). Music exposure differentially alters the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and nerve growth factor in the mouse hypothalamus. Neuroscience Letters, 429 (2/3), pp. 152-55.

Benson, E. (1980). In His Steps. In Speeches of the Year. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, p. 61.

Boesch, E. (1997). Reasons for a symbolic concept of action. Culture and Psychology, 3.

Palmer, B., Sharp, M., Carter, B., & Roddenberry, Y. (1991). The effects of music and structured oral directions on auding and reading comprehension. International Journal of Listening, 5, pp. 7-21.

Labbe, E., Schmidt, N., Babin, J., & Pharr, M. (2007). Coping with stress: The effectiveness of different types of music. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 32 (4), pp. 163-68.


Amy Osmond (Ph.D., a.b.d.) is a mass media instructor at Arizona State University. She teaches courses such as “Media and Society,” “Media Issues in American Pop Culture,” “Political Communication,” “War and Mass Media.” She has published articles relating to social justice, online teaching, and abuse of women and children and has presented at academic conferences on subjects such as women and child abuse, terrorism, and sociopathy. As a speaker for large civic and religious organizations, Amy has spoken on subjects such as teamwork and effects of music. Her academic interests center around two topics: abuse of women and children, and effects of mass media in society.

In addition to teaching mass media, Amy has some experience participating in mass media-related industries. The daughter of Wayne and Kathy Osmond, Amy has toured and performed for multiple years with the Osmond Brothers. A professional studio and solo violinist, she released her debut album, Nativity (a collection of traditional Christmas songs performed on the violin and harp), in 2004. Amy was also the national winner and spokesperson of America’s Junior Miss Scholarship Program in 1994. Amy has been featured in print publications such as People Magazine and USA Today and on television programs such as Good Morning America. She is currently the regional music director of her church and continues to perform on a regular basis.

While Amy is interested in numerous aspects of mass media, her favorite part about living in the digital age is being able to take advantage of new technology to fit a mother’s lifestyle. Fortunately, the classes she teaches are online, allowing her the opportunity to be at home full time with her children. She is married to Jeff Cook and is the proud mother of three (and a half!) beautiful children.

(This article will soon also be available on


Charlotte said...


That was an interesting article on the effects of music on people, but..I had an observation.

The original post talked about a little girl using the excuse of "its just a song" to say some not so nice things. I have a son who would use a similar approach, only he would say, Mom! Its just a joke!

While the information on music was interesting, I really get the feeling this little girl was "hiding" unacceptable speech behind what could slip by as an acceptable genre. I don't think her understanding of what it was--was off at all, or else she wouldn't have felt the need to camoflauge it.

You know? I think if I'd been her mom, I would've sat down right in front of her; eye level. Not say a word..and look into her eyes while she "sang" those hurtful things--and see what God does with her heart.

Bet you anything--you'd be getting some "I'm sorry Mom"'s. what you're after anyway--their hearts.

Anonymous said...

Amy, you're brilliant.

Char said...

I really enjoyed your article. With watching my niece and nephew I do under how fast they pick up on songs. I'm glad that my sister makes sure their songs are right. She's a Micheal Bolton fan so they are too and it's funny to see them sing and dance to him. But I love that it's family fun for them. When you see through thier front window when you leave everybody dance and singing and gives you a warm feeling inside.
I'm proud of all the accomplishment you've made. It really impressed me. Wish we could get to hear and see more of you and your children as they grow. Even of you and your siblings...their accomplishments as they have grown. Keep up the great work Amy.