New research shows that musical training can help offset some academic achievement gaps for disadvantaged kids.
The study, which involved hundreds of disadvantaged kids in musical training programs in public schools in Los Angeles and Chicago, spotlights how learning to play a musical instrument or sing can help improve neural function and learning abilities over time.
“Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn,” said Nina Kraus, Ph.D., a neurobiologist at Northwestern University.
“While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap.”
Kraus’s lab research has found that musical training appears to enhance the way kids’ nervous systems process sounds in a busy environment, such as a classroom or a playground. This improved neural function may lead to enhanced memory and attention spans, which allow kids to focus better in the classroom and improve their communication skills, she said.
Many of the kids in the study are part of the Harmony Project in Los Angeles, which was founded by Margaret Martin, Ph.D.
In her most recent research, Kraus began following the children when they were in first and second grade. Half participated in musical training and the other half were randomly selected from the program’s waiting list and received no musical training during the first year.
She found that children who had no musical training had diminished reading scores while Harmony Project participants’ reading scores remained unchanged over the same time span.
The researchers also discovered that after two years, neural responses to sound in adolescent music students were faster and more precise than in students in another type of enrichment class.
The researchers also tested the auditory abilities in adolescents from lower economic backgrounds at three public high schools in Chicago.
Over two years, half of the students participated in either band or choir while the other half were enrolled in Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (JROTC) classes, which teaches character education, achievement, wellness, leadership, and diversity. All participants had comparable reading ability and IQs at the start of the study, the researchers noted.
The researchers then recorded the children’s brain waves as they listened to a repeated syllable against soft background sound, which made it harder for the brain to process. They repeated these tests after one year and again at the two-year mark.
What they found is that the music students’ neural responses strengthened, while the JROTC students’ responses remained the same.
Interestingly, according to Kraus, the differences in the music students’ brain waves occurred after two years, but not at one year, which shows that these programs cannot be used as quick fixes.
Even after the lessons stop, the brain still reaps benefits, according to studies on the long-term benefits of music lessons.
In one study, Kraus’s team surveyed college students and asked them how many years they had music training. As they found with the elementary school students, college students who had more than five years of musical training in elementary school or high school had improved neural responses to sound when compared to college students who had had no musical training.
“The Harmony Project provides instruments for the students who participate five or more hours a week in musical instruction and ensemble rehearsals. The project is year-round and tuition-free based on income,” said Martin.
“Many of the programs build full-time bands in neighborhoods where the students live and the students agree to commit to the program from elementary school through high school,” she said.
“We’re spending millions of dollars on drugs to help kids focus and here we have a non-pharmacologic intervention that thousands of disadvantaged kids devote themselves to in their non-school hours — that works,” she said. “Learning to make music appears to remodel our kids’ brains in ways that facilitate and improve their ability to learn.”
The Harmony Project has launched programs in other urban school districts, including Miami; New Orleans; Tulsa, Oklahoma.; Kansas City, Missouri; and Ventura, California.
Martin and Kraus presented the findings of the research at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention.