Using Music to Close the Academic Gap

New studies on the cognitive advantages of learning instruments at early ages
(Boston Public Library/flickr)

Several times a week, a group of at-risk youth in Los Angeles reports to makeshift music rooms at Alexandria Elementary School near Koreatown for lessons in violin or cello or bass—and to Saturday ensemble programs where they learn to play with bands and orchestras. As the students study their instruments, researchers study the students’ brains.

The children, who devote at least five hours per week to their music, are participants in the award-winning non-profit Harmony Project, which provides free instruments and instruction to kids in underserved areas of the city if they promise to stay in school. The scientists, who hail from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, travel from Evanston, Illinois to a satellite lab in Hollywood for a few weeks each year to examine the impact of the music lessons on the children’s language and cognitive skills. What they are finding, according to Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern and lead researcher of the study, is that music instruction not only improves children’s communication skills, attention, and memory, but that it may even close the academic gap between rich and poor students. Kraus reported these results in a National Endowment of the Arts-sponsored webinar in July.

When Plato said that music gives “wings to the mind,” he might have been onto something. Recent studies increasingly point to the power of music to shape the brain and boost its functioning. But despite a flurry of research documenting the positive effects of music lessons on the brain, there have been few controlled, longitudinal studies like Kraus’s that follow kids year after year and examine music’s impact on brain structure and function as it’s happening. Instead, most of the studies to date have compared the brains of musicians and non-musicians—or of students who have studied instruments to those who have not—and inferred that brain enhancements in music-makers stem from music training

Kraus’s study is part of a new wave of longer-term, forward-looking studies honing in on the neurological impact of school and community-based music training—as opposed to private music lessons, which, according to Kraus, have been the basis of most past studies—particularly on lower-income students who have not previously had access to music education, so study subjects begin on a level playing field. Kraus and her colleagues in Los Angeles will spend the next few years gauging not only how group music instruction affects the way the brain processes sound, but also how it influences classroom and language skills among the elementary school kids enrolled in the Harmony project. Kraus is also evaluating the impact of public school-based music instruction on adolescent brain development in a multi-year study focusing on inner-city high school students in Chicago.

Meanwhile, another five-year study at the University of Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute is tracking cognitive, emotional, and social development in at-risk elementary school children in the gang-riddled Rampart District of Los Angeles who receive high-intensity music training through the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles program.

And in yet another ongoing five-year study, neuroscientists at the University of California, San Diego are watching to see how intense music ensemble training affects the brain development of children in San Diego’s under-served Chula Vista school district, specifically by looking at how it influences connections in the brain. “We clearly believe that if someone becomes better at language perception, something in the brain has changed,” says John Iversen, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at UCSD and lead researcher of the SIMPHONY (Studying the Influence Music Practice has On Neurodevelopment in Youth) project. “By tracking the same kids for a series of years, we can watch the whole process unfold.”

Though these studies are far from over, researchers, as well as the parents and teachers of the study subjects, are already noticing a change in the kids who are studying music. Preliminary results suggest that not only does school and community-based music instruction indeed have an impact on brain functioning, but that it could possibly make a significant difference in the academic trajectory of lower-income kids.

Unfortunately, these are the kids who typically have less access to quality music education programs. Though a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report found that some degree of music education was offered in the majority of public schools—94 percent of elementary schools and 91 percent of secondary schools—it also revealed an alarming disparity between the availability of music programs in high-poverty and low-poverty schools. The new crop of controlled, multi-year studies promises to further scientists’ understanding of how music training affects the brain, and in so doing, perhaps provide an impetus for social change.


Much fanfare followed studies in the 1990’s suggesting that exposure to classical music makes the brain work better, improving spatial reasoning as well as concentration. Not only did retailers capitalize on these findings with classical music CDs and videos designed to make babies smarter, but the governor of Georgia at the time, Zell Miller, cited the so-called “Mozart Effect” as his justification for including a $105,000 item in his 1998 state budget to provide a classical music CD to every infant born in Georgia. While most scientists agree that these initial findings were overplayed (and temporary), subsequent studies have shown that active music training has an even more profound—and longer lasting—effect than just being exposed to music.

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Lori Miller Kase is a writer based in Simsbury, Connecticut.

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