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Small study shows high school music classes improve language skills

Neuroscience research showing that high school interventions for low-income students can be effective

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Proof Points

A tiny study of 40 high school students in Chicago perked up some ears recently. It found that a small amount of musical instrument instruction — only two to three hours of band class a week — improved how the teenage brain processed sound. Neuroscientists from Northwestern University made the case that the kind of brain maturation they documented was not only important for becoming a better musician, but also for developing non-musical verbal skills.

“Although learning to play music does not teach skills that seem directly relevant to most careers, the results suggest that music may engender what educators refer to as ‘learning to learn,’” wrote Nina Kraus, the lead researcher of the July, 2015, study, “Music training alters the course of adolescent auditory development,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed publication. “Learning to learn” refers to almost any technique that improves a brain’s ability to learn a new thing.

Of course, these results would need to be replicated on a much larger scale before anyone starts calling for more high school music classes. But they offer a promising sign that the teenage brain still has considerable “neuroplasticity” and is responsive to interventions; it hasn’t finished developing in childhood.

“A lot of efforts are focused on interventions in early childhood. That sometimes sends message that later efforts can be less effective,” said Kim Nobel, a neuroscientist at Teachers College, Columbia University (where The Hechinger Report, an independently-funded news organization, is also based). “It’s nice to have evidence that adolescent interventions can be effective.”

This Northwestern study conforms with earlier neuroscience research, here and here, showing that the teenage brain is still under construction. However, another line of research in the youngest children has shown, for example, stark differences in verbal development among high-income and low-income toddlers. This research into babies’ and toddlers’ brains can lead many to the conclusion that by the time children are in middle school or high school, their brains are effectively “baked,” and if they are behind in learning, there’s little you can do to help them catch up.

The Chicago music study intentionally tracked students from low-income neighborhoods, but it didn’t prove that the brain of a low-income teenager has enough neuroplasticity to fully catch up. Researchers measured the music students against another group of students, from the same neighborhoods, who didn’t take the band classes but instead enrolled in a Junior ROTC fitness program. The fitness students demonstrated fewer improvements in auditory processing — a key to verbal processing —  than the music students did.

It’s important to note that the students were not randomly assigned, but rather chose to take band on their own. It could be that the students who opt to take music classes had more “plastic” brains to begin with. Still, at the start of the study, the researchers found no brain differences, as measured by electrode readings, between the music and the exercise groups. And after three years, the music group showed significant changes.

The connection between music and language development is one that neuroscientists have long studied. Northwestern’s Kraus, director of that university’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, theorizes that regular music-making strengthens non-musical brain functions, such as memory, attention, language skills and reading skills. She believes the way the brain absorbs and encodes differences in pitch, timbre and rhythm also helps people decipher and interpret speech better. For example, with stronger audio discrimination, you might hear differences in sounds that other students commonly confuse, such as “b” and “g” or “d” and “t”.

Krauss, an amateur musician herself,  is also studying the potential benefits of music for low-income children in Los Angeles.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a contributing editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive

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