MIND
December 19, 2014

Music Class Sharpens the Brain

Music classes can improve language processing and school achievement, even among disadvantaged kids.

Music programs are an endangered species in many schools, but maybe, now that it has been shown they foster brain development and can actually help at-risk children form better commitments to schoolwork, they'll get more respect — and funding. Of course, as with other areas of study, those students who just sit passively in music class miss out on these potential benefits.

The idea that children who regularly and actively participate in music class demonstrate greater improvements in language processing and reading scores compared to less-involved peers was recently tested by a Northwestern University study.

Among the students who were taught music in the study, there were differences in attendance and class participation, and even these subtle differences influenced the extent of cognitive improvement. Moreover, it appears the nature of musical participation matters. Students who played instruments, for example, benefited more than their peers who, though engaged in the classes, did not.

Children who regularly and actively participate in music class demonstrate greater improvements in language processing and reading scores compared to less-involved peers.

This sort of cognitive strengthening that music training helps develop is likely to benefit these students throughout their academic progress and even later in life.

“Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain,” said study author Nina Kraus, professor at Northwestern and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

Researchers recorded brain activity directly from electrodes placed on the students’ heads. They also observed changes in certain brain regions in children who engaged in music class — the same brain regions that are typically weak in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The study was part of a multi-year collaboration with the Harmony Project, a non-profit that seeks to provide underprivileged children access to educational opportunities in music. It was initiated following the observation that participating students showed striking academic success.

Compared to other children in their neighborhoods, the students in the Harmony Project were less likely to drop out of school and more likely to attend college.

Previous findings add to this work, showing that extended periods of exposure to musical training — up to two years — can literally remodel the brain in a way that improves information processing.

The article is published in Frontiers in Psychology.

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