Playing music in a group setting on a regular basis significantly improves children's ability to empathize with others and show compassion, according to new findings.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge conducted a year-long study and found that participating in regular music-based activities from ensembles to simple rhythmic exercises with others greatly increased children's capacity to recognize and consider the emotions of others.

The study consisted of 52 boys and girls between the ages of eight and 11 who were divided into three groups.

One of the groups met every week to interact through musical games developed by the researchers, and the other two, which acted as control groups, either did activities associated with words and drama or received no activities.

Researchers tested children on their level of compassion and ability to recognize emotion in others by employing a few standard and new techniques developed by the researchers like analyzing how children responded to emotion in facial expression and movies at the beginning and end of the study.

They found that children in the music group demonstrated a substantial increase in empathy scores and had a higher average score compared to the other groups.

"These results bear out our hypothesis that certain components of musical interaction may enhance a capacity for emotional empathy, which continues outside the musical context," lead researcher Tal-Chen Rabinowitch from the Centre for Music and Science said in a university news release.

"We feel that the program of musical activities we’ve developed could serve as a platform for a new approach to music education – one that helps advance not just musical skill but also social abilities and, in particular, the emotional understanding of others," Rabinowitch added.

The musical activities developed by the researchers were intended to emphasize the components of musical interaction that the researchers believed would promote empathy and foster greater understanding of shared mental states.

Children were asked to mimic or match other players' movements and musical motifs where researcher used rhythm to encourage synchronized performance so that they would learn how to align and adjust themselves through attending to others.

Researchers believed that by engaging in these musical activities on a regular basis, the children were experiencing states of "shared intentionality" or understanding of each other’s intentions through a common aim or object of attention, which led to an emotional affinity among the children.

The team believes that music and rhythm creates a sense of mutual 'honesty' that goes beyond the verbal communication, which allows everyone to feel and share an emotional experience regardless of linguistic skills.

"The point about music is that it can make you feel as though you are sharing the same experience, when you don’t need to be doing the same thing or feeling the same way," says Cross. "There is a strong sense in communal music that you simply do feel you are experiencing the same thing as everyone else."

Researchers said that increasing the ability to empathize leads to greater demonstration of altruistic behaviors like patience and cooperativeness, which would be beneficial in an educational and social environment.

For example, past research found that children who scored higher on empathy were also more likely to help other being bullied.

"Working with children on social and emotional communication allows them to gain confidence in experiencing another person’s emotional state – and producing a supportive emotional response," Rabinowitch said.

Researchers hope to replicate their findings in larger and more diverse settings and also in populations that are thought of as having less capacity for empathy, like those on the autism spectrum.