New Research Finds Positive Impact of Music Education Even When Started in High School

New research finds music lessons produce neural benefits in kids who don’t start formal training until high school.

A recent article by journalist Tom Jacobs in Pacific Standard Magazine explores findings that strongly indicate that even when students don’t start studying an instrument until high school, the effects can be significant.

“We show that in-school music training changes the course of adolescent brain development,” a research team led by Nina Kraus of Northwestern University writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Our results support the notion that the adolescent brain remains receptive to training, underscoring the importance of enrichment during teenage years.”

Kraus and colleagues Adam Tierney and Jennifer Krizman followed two groups of Chicago-area students from low-income neighborhoods through their high school years, testing them just before they entered as freshmen, and again during their senior year. One group of 19 students “engaged in music training in which they performed music from written notation in a group setting.” The other group of 21 students participated in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.

Electrode recordings at the start of the study and three years later revealed that the music group showed more rapid maturation in the brain’s response to sound, compared to those enrolled in JROTC. Moreover, the group of musicians demonstrated prolonged heightened brain sensitivity to sound details.

The testing focused on language skills and how brains responded to the details of sounds. As Kraus noted in an email exchange, sensitivity to sound details typically peaks during childhood and then gradually declines. This helps explain why it’s easier for children and adolescents to learn new languages than it is for adults.

These results suggest that high school music classes engender gains in brain function and behavior that, although small, demonstrate the potential of enrichment to jump-start adolescent neurodevelopment,” Kraus and her colleagues conclude.

“The percentage of children receiving music instruction before 18 dropped from 53 percent in 1982 to 36 percent in 2008,” Kraus and her colleagues write. “Increasingly, however, longitudinal studies of music training present converging evidence that music training confers gains in skills vital for everyday life. Therefore, although learning to play music does not train skills directly relevant to most careers, music may engender ‘learning to learn’—the development of skills that will enhance the ability to acquire knowledge and talents in the future.”

Read the full article here.

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