BY SHEREEN LEHMAN
“Music training directs children’s attention to sounds, and teaches them to make sound-meaning connections, eventually leading to heightened biological processing of sound that is associated with superior academic performance,” study leader Nina Kraus told Reuters Health in an email.
“Learning to make music appears to remodel children’s brains in ways that facilitate and improve their ability to learn academic content,” said Kraus, who directs Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Evanston, Illinois.
The children were actively playing instruments themselves rather than passively listening to others’ music, Kraus pointed out.
The study team collaborated with Harmony Project, a community music program that has provided free music instruments and instruction to more than 1,000 children in the Los Angeles area in low-income neighborhoods, Kraus said.
“Studies of music training’s benefits have generally focused on private instruction, which tends to be expensive and is usually an option only for privileged children,” Kraus said.
“The breakthrough with this study is the discovery of positive biological changes following participation in a free community music education program offered in low-income neighborhoods,” she added.
As reported in the Journal of Neuroscience, 44 children between the ages of six and nine participated in the study. They all went to public schools and lived in gang-reduction zones of Los Angeles.
The children were split into two groups. One group started lessons right away. For two hours per week, they received training in music fundamentals and learning to play the recorder. Most kids progressed to group instruction with instruments after about six months.
The second group waited a year before starting lessons.
Each year the research team evaluated the children’s ability to process speech.
Children who took lessons for two years showed improvements in their ability to distinguish similar sounds. These changes were not apparent after only one year, however.
“We’re not claiming music is a quick fix and we’re not saying music is the single, perfect way to improve academic performance, but music-making does provide a host of ingredients for brain stimulation,” Kraus said.
Aniruddh Patel, a psychology researcher from Tufts University in Boston, told Reuters Health by phone, “I think it’s an important study — we need a lot more of this kind of work where neuroscientists actually go into the schools and look at the effect of real world musical training programs on children.”
Studies should focus particularly on “children who stand to gain a lot from these things – low socio-economic status children that may not be receiving a lot of other enrichment at home or in other activities,” said Patel. He has done research on how musical training produces benefits but wasn’t involved in this new study.
Patel would like to see more studies that build on this one. For example, he would like to see music training compared to other types of training, or studies of both neural and behavioral measures of language processing.
“So there are clearly ways in which the study could be expanded, and future work could ask more and deeper questions, but in terms of getting a foot in the door with this type of research, I think it’s a landmark study,” he said.
Patel said more work like this is needed, particularly as communities think about reshaping school curricula and setting priorities.
“It always seems like music is the first to go when budgets get tight – never based on any evidence but just on the intuition that it’s kind of a frill,” he said. But, he added, we know that music deeply engages the emotional system of the brain and children learn best when they’re excited about things.