When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain are lighting up at once as they process sound, take it apart to understand elements like melody and rhythm, and then put it all back together into unified musical experience. And our brains do all this work in the split second between when we first hear the music and when our foot starts to tap along.
“Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t,” says
Loveday. “It’s a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way
that nothing else does, and the evidence that musical training enhances
things like working memory and language is very robust.”
Closing the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students could be as simple as do-re-mi.
In a study out Tuesday from Northwestern University, researchers looked at the impact of music education on at-risk children’s nervous systems and found that music lessons could help them develop language and reading skills. The study is the first to document the influence of after-school music education on the brains of disadvantaged children, as opposed to affluent children receiving private lessons.
Researchers from the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern spent two summers with children in Los Angeles who were receiving music lessons through Harmony Project, a non-profit organization providing free music education to low-income students. In order to document how music education changed children’s brains, students were hooked up to a neural probe that allowed researchers to see how children “distinguished similar speech sounds, a neural process that is linked to language and reading skills,” according to a press release.
Students from the study, ages six to nine, were divided into two groups. The first group consisted of children who received two years of music education by the end of the study, while the second group of children had only received one year of lessons. This led researchers to discover that children’s brains only started to respond to the music education after two years of lessons. One year was not enough to have a definitive impact.
“We used a quick but powerful neural probe that allowed us to gauge speech processing with unprecedented precision. With it, we found that the brain changes only followed two years of music training,” Dr. Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, said in a press release. “These findings are a testament that it’s a mistake to think of music education as a quick fix, but that if it’s an ongoing part of children’s education, making music can have a profound and lifelong impact on listening and learning.”
Leaders at Harmony Project approached the researchers after the non-profit observed that their students were performing much better than other public school students in the area. Since 2008, over 90 percent of high school seniors who participated in Harmony Project’s free music lessons went on to college, even though the high school dropout rates in the surrounding Los Angeles areas can reach up to 50 percent, according to a Northwestern press release.
“Now we know this success is rooted, at least in part, in the unique brain changes imparted by making music,” Dr. Margaret Martin, founder of Harmony Project, said in the press release.
Kraus told The Huffington Post that the study could be a case for expanding music education in school.
“It would appear that music is an effective strategy for helping to close the achievement gap,” Kraus said. “What seems to be happening is that this experience of making music is helping to create a more efficient brain, a brain that is going to be able to help a person learn and communicate, especially through sound.”
The Harmony Project and the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory have teamed up before to study how music education impacts students’ grades. Researchers previously showed that after one year, second-grade students participating in Harmony Project maintained or improved their grades. This compares to peers from the same schools whose grades’ dipped after not participating in music lessons.
“Existing research indicates that kids from poor homes are not learning to read in the first four years of school –- while kids from middle-class and affluent homes are,” Martin previously told The Atlantic. “Given the importance of reading in achieving an education, this finding is stunning.”
Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain? On the outside they may look calm and focused, reading the music and making the precise and practiced movements required. But inside their brains, there’s a party going on.
Playing music requires fine motor skills, which are controlled in both hemispheres of the brain. It also combines the linguistic and mathematical precision (which the left hemisphere is more involved in) with the novel and creative content (that the right hemisphere excels in). For these reasons, playing music has been found to increase the volume and activity in the brain’s corpus callosum - the bridge between the two hemispheres - allowing messages to get across the brain faster and through more diverse routes.
Recent research about the mental benefits of playing music has many applications, such as music therapy for people with emotional problems, or helping to treat the symptoms of stroke survivors and Alzheimer’s patients. But it is perhaps even more significant in how much it advances our understanding of mental function, revealing the inner rhythms and complex interplay that make up the amazing orchestra of our brain.
Thousands of kids throughout the US are denied access to the magical powers of music! The benefits music has on the brain and your overall well-being are countless! Protect the future of Music Education and make kids’ dreams into their realities by donating to our kickstarter campaign! DSTMUSA is a star-studded program slated to air in 2016, produced by The Content Farm and based off of BBC’s hit series Dont Stop the Music.