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Music Class May Help Students' Language Skills, Study Finds

Amid pressure to boost students' performance on standardized tests, some schools, districts, and states have shifted their focus away from teaching topics like music and towards English/language arts, which is more often tested as part of accountability initiatives.

New research out of Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, however, has concluded that instruction in the former subject may improve performance in the latter.

The longitudinal study, published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at whether in-school music training had any effect on the brain and auditory system development of adolescents entering high school.

To conduct the experiment, researchers followed 40 Chicago-area students—age 14.7 years, on average, going into their freshman year—over the course of four years. The students were divided into two groups based on their chosen academic pathways, with each participating in a different group activity throughout high school.

One group took part in music writing and performance classes, while the other was in Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps. Each group had two to three hours of instruction each week in their chosen activity.

Through analyzing tests administered to the students before high school and during their senior year, researchers found that those who took music classes maintained quick response times to sound and had lasting stability in sound processing, whereas those in Junior ROTC did not.

And while both groups in the study showed improvements in their awareness of the sound structures that comprise words, the music students had the larger gains.

Such findings fall in line with other research showing the positive effects of music enrichment, including improved speech-in-noise perception, phonological skills, and verbal memory, on brain development. Among other indicators, response consistency—which waned in Junior ROTC students but not in music students—correlates with language skills, according to the study.

The new findings notwithstanding, though, it's hard to tell how much music instruction students are actually getting in school. According to statistics cited in the study from a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts report, the number of people receiving any music education during their childhood has dropped steeply since the early 1980s, going from 53 percent to nearly 37 percent. Conversely, a 2012 Arts Education at a Glance report from the U.S. Department of Education found that music instruction was the most offered form of arts education in the country. Between 1999 and 2009, in fact, music class availability didn't decline in public primary or secondary schools, and was present in more than 90 percent of schools.

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