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Music Instruction Can Make for a Smarter Teen

New research finds music lessons produce neural benefits in kids who don't start formal training until high school.
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(Photo: woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

(Photo: woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

Many studies have emerged in recent years describing the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral benefits of music education for children. But given the tight budgets and questionable priorities of so many school districts, a lot of kids don't begin formal music training until they enter high school and decide to join a band or chorus.

At that age, does music instruction still offer such significant benefits? Do the skills teens learn in the rehearsal room have a positive impact on their developing brains?

According to newly published research, the answer is: absolutely.

"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.

"Music training impacts the auditory system when it is begun in adolescence, suggesting that a modest amount of training begun later in life can affect neural function."

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.

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.

Using a different measurement known as "phonological awareness"—the ability to focus on the sounds of speech as distinct from its meaning; the intonation, rhythm, or rhyming words within given sounds—both groups showed gains over their high school years, but those of the music group were significantly larger.

"Taken together, 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.

Specifically, "Music and training may maintain heightened synaptic density within the auditory system to enable the learning and performance of challenging auditory tasks," they write. "Our results establish that music training impacts the auditory system when it is begun in adolescence, suggesting that a modest amount of training begun later in life can affect neural function."

Kraus and her colleagues are quick to note that JROTC training likely has its own benefits, including mental discipline. The fact those students also improved on phonological awareness suggests a positive impact of synchronized marching, which can "draw on the ability to precisely track sound event timing."

The larger point is that the adolescent brain is still developing, and that music instruction can impact this in ways that "seem to boost literacy skills," the researchers conclude. Understanding the spoken word is, needless to say, a vital component of learning, and these results suggest music lessons—even those begun at age 14—can enhance one's abilities in this important domain.

"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."

Do we really want to cut programs that strengthen kids' capacity to learn?

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.