Emotional communication is central to music performance expression and empathy. Research has shown that music activities can enhance empathy in children and that more empathic adults can more accurately recognize and feel performers’ expressive intentions. Nevertheless, little is known about performance expression during childhood and the specific music-related factors affecting empathy development. This paper explores children’s sensitivity to a performer’s expressive or mechanical intentions and its relationship to children’s everyday empathy. Twenty-seven children listened to expressive and mechanical versions of Romantic flute excerpts with and without accompanying video, rating their perceived level of the performer’s expression and their enjoyment of the performance. The results indicate that children recognize performers’ intended expression or lack thereof and enjoy expressive performances more than mechanical ones. Children aged 10–12 recognized performance expression better than those aged 8–9, especially in audiovisual conditions. Children with higher cognitive empathy rated performance expression more in line with their enjoyment of the performance, which was also more concordant with the performer’s expressive intention. The findings support a relationship between music and socio-emotional skills and emphasize the importance of the visual component of music performance for children, an aspect that has received little attention among researchers and educators.

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