Music education advocates have been fighting back against school budget cuts by claiming that that learning music makes kids better at learning other things.
Numerous studies have found that students who play an instrument tend to do better in school across a wide range of subjects, but not everyone agrees that music instruction is the reason why they do better. It’s not clear whether music training sharpens the learning mind or if smarter and self-motivated kids are more likely to start (and stick with) music training in the first place—the classic causation versus correlation conundrum.
In a September 2021 book Of Sound Mind (MIT Press), auditory neuroscientist Nina Kraus makes the case that budding musicians enjoy real brain gains that help them achieve beyond the school orchestra. The book covers a broad sweep of Kraus’s decades-long investigation into the hearing brain at her Brainvolts lab at Northwestern University, including two longitudinal studies of students in real-world music classes who showed improved language and reading skills that tracked with changes in their brain functioning compared to control group students.
While much of Kraus’s focus is on reading and language skills, she says learning to play an instrument provides a workout for the whole brain.
“The hearing brain is vast,” she said. “It engages your sensory, cognitive, motor and reward systems so it affects how you understand, how you think, how you move and how information from all your senses comes together. That’s all involved in making sense of sound, and music is the jackpot.”
Her team’s first study followed a few dozen second-graders from lower-income families in Los Angeles who were new to playing music and were signed up for extracurricular instrumental lessons through the nonprofit Harmony Project. Because the program was oversubscribed, about half the kids were waitlisted for the first year of the two-year study and became the control group.
At the study’s outset, the two groups were equivalent in IQ, reading proficiency and tests of hearing and sound processing (such as recalling and repeating a series of consonant and vowel sounds). But kids who spent two years learning instruments gained significant advantages in reading and sound processing scores, compared to control-group peers no matter what instruments they played.
The benefits also registered in the brains of kids who learned music for two years. Scalp electrodes tapping mid-brain signals showed they differentiated between the sounds “ga” and “ba” with more speed and fidelity.
According to Kraus, this measure of the brain’s ability to follow changes in pitch and timing is key “for learning to read and communicating through language,” including the ability to follow speech in noise, a crucial skill for learning any subject in crowded classrooms.
The Brainvolts team also found advantages for music learners—in both verbal tests and brain measures—in a second study that followed high-school students in Chicago public schools for three years. In this study, the students who didn’t learn instruments were enrolled in three years of Junior Reserve Officer Training (JROTC) programs, forming what’s known as an “active control group” to further distinguish the effects of music training compared to any other activity requiring the development of self-discipline, focused attention and determination.
Other research into musical training’s impact on non-music skills continues to yield mixed results. And studies that attempt to corral these findings and weigh their varying results, known as metaanalyses, come to disparate conclusions about whether the evidence largely supports broader cognitive benefits from learning an instrument, along with frequent tussles over the analysis done by other researchers.
Kraus contends that metaanalyses work well for drug studies but she questions their robustness for testing musical interventions that vary so widely—from the instruments and intensity of practice to the length of the study and the measured outcomes.
As Kraus wrote in a 2020 American Scientist commentary, “One can’t condense music instruction into pill form. We were never enthusiastic about relying on simulacra of music instruction, such as two weeks of basic recorder training in a lab.”
She stands by her own lab’s approach, which combines lab work with well-controlled longitudinal studies that test both behavioral and brain responses to musical training.
“People always want a yes or no answer. But it depends,” she said. “It depends on context and how you interpret the data. It’s really about looking at the converging evidence, and from my point of view as a biologist, the converging evidence is extremely strong.”
This story about music education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletters.