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Study: Studying Music Helps Children's Brains Develop

13music_violin_blog.jpgThis post initially appeared on the Curriculum Matters blog.

Studying music seems to have helped accelerate the cognitive development, and particularly the auditory- and speech and language-processing abilities, of a group of young children in Los Angeles. 

That's an early pair of findings from a five-year longitudinal study being conducted by researchers with the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Heart of Los Angeles, a community center. The study, published earlier this spring in Developmental Cognitive Neurosciencechecks in on a group of students two years into an experiment about the impact of music education on students' cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Previous studies have shown that adult musicians' brains are distinct from those of non-musicians, and that musical training in early childhood is associated with structural changes in the brain. The USC researchers write that this study should increase the field's understanding of how and whether musical training affects the brain.

The researchers began following 45 children, all from economically disadvantaged, bilingual households (most are Latino, one is Korean) in Southern California, starting when the children were 6 and 7. The initial group was split into three: One set of 13 students is receiving music instruction through the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, one group is playing soccer, and another is involved in no particular after-school activity. Eight students have since dropped out of the study or moved, so this paper focuses on the 37 remaining students. 

The students in the music program are being taught using an approach based on El Sistema, developed in Venezuela. They receive free instruments and intensive, regular training from adult musicians. The students are occasionally monitored via MRIs, EEGs, and other activities to gauge their brain development. 

Two years in, the students in the music group were more able to identify differences in musical pitch on a piano than other students. The brain scans also showed that these students had more-developed auditory pathways than their peers. 

The authors write that this development in auditory processing also affects students' ability to process speech and language—which means it could have an impact on students' academic progress as well as their musical abilities.

This study is one of a number tackling the impact of music on young people's brains. Education Week spoke with one of the researchers involved in this study, neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio, as it was beginning in 2013.

At the time, Damasio said he and his colleagues were interested in how music training and creation affect the entire brain: 

"We say that when people are inspired, they create, that it all comes in a rush," said Antonio R. Damasio, a neuroscience professor at the University of Southern California, "but, of course, it comes in a rush if you've trained your hands and your mind for an entire lifetime. That moment of inspiration generally comes on the back of a whole process of imagination and knowledge and criticism of what has come before."

"We want to know what circuitries are involved, but this is something about the whole brain, not left or right brain or some particular cortex," he said...

Many schools have experienced cuts in arts and music programs in recent decades. In Los Angeles and other school districts, advocates have been highlighting the inequitable distribution of arts programs in schools. (Many schools serving the most disadvantaged students don't have robust arts programs.) Studies like this one may bolster claims that access to music education in schools, especially where many students are living in poverty, could benefit children's cognitive development. 

Photo: Yashelyn, 9, plays violin in the Youth Orchestra LA at the Heart of Los Angeles music program class in Los Angeles. --Eric Grigorian for Education Week

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