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Studying Music in High School Can Help Students Process Sound, Language

Teens' brains can benefit from learning to make music, according to findings from a new study in Chicago.

For more than a decade, Nina Kraus, the director of Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, has been on a quest to understand the biology of sound. Her research has explored how things like bilingualism, aging, and ambient noise show up in and change the brain. At the U.S. Department of Education this week, Kraus shared some of her findings on sound and the brain with a room full of policymakers, teachers, and department staff.

The Chicago project's findings build on work done on a music program in Los Angeles called the Harmony Project. In 2014, Kraus and a group of researchers released findings from a study on the Harmony Project showing that students' ability to process sound was improved after two years of music study. 

Both studies examine students' ability to distinguish between meaningful and meaningless sound. "The brain makes sound-to-meaning connections," Kraus said. "It turns out that making music can strengthen exactly the processing in the brain that is important for language, for reading, for making sense of sound."

The newer study focuses on high schoolers in Chicago Public Schools. Kraus found that participating in a music ensemble for two years was associated with improved brain responses to speech and stronger reading skills. The findings are highlighted in a June article in the journal Neuroscientist called "The Neurobiology of Everyday Communication: What Have We Learned From Music?" 

Students attended music class three-to-six times each week. A second group of students participated in JROTC, an army physical education and character-building program. The students in Chicago had never participated in organized music activities at school before the research began, which was during their freshman year, Kraus said. 

After two years, reading skills in both groups had improved—but the music group's scores improved more. The music students also showed changes in the part of the brain that processes sound.  

In an interview with Education Week, Kraus said it's important that students were actually learning to make music, not just listening to it. "This was not a music appreciation class," she said.  

She said the findings are also striking because many studies have followed people with access to private lessons or afterschool programs. These students were learning to make music in school and in group settings. 

Kraus said it's particularly relevant for students who are growing up in poverty or with parents who have had less formal education—as was the case for many of the students in the Chicago school. Other research has shown that students whose mothers are less educated have a harder time processing sound. She said the Chicago study shows that learning to make music can help strengthen that auditory processing. 

There's been a lot of focus on early-childhood education and the importance of reaching kids early. But this study is a reminder that the brains of high schoolers are also in flux, Kraus said. "So much is happening in their nervous systems."

nina kraus.jpeg

Kraus said that her research on music and other types of sound holds lessons for people who care about education. 

"Biology is really informing us that having a balanced education, one that involves music, is beneficial biologically for learning," she said. "Sound is fundamental to communication and learning."

She said that research on how bilingualism strengthens the brain also can help encourage students who are learning a new language. "Some kids view their bilingualism as a liability," she said. "But in fact, it really makes them, from a biological standpoint, better able to identify sounds and make sense of them."

Finally, she said that schools should "avoid meaningless noise." Construction, traffic, classroom noise—all can make it harder for students to learn. 

Kraus' research on sound and the brain is online at brainvolts.northwestern.edu. It doesn't stop with school: Kraus' lab has also shown that playing an instrument in childhood positively affects the brain well into adulthood, and that elderly musicians are more able to understand meaningful sound in noisy environments. The website also includes slideshows, including one on music, that illustrate and explain sound and the brain throughout life.  

Photo: Researcher Nina Kraus presents information about the biology of sound at the U.S. Department of Education. Noel St. John, NAMM Foundation


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