At-Risk Youth May Benefit From Music Training

Brain function improved with ongoing music lessons

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Childhood is a rapid period of development for the brain. Music lessons may be one way to support brain growth — especially in underserved youth.

Previous research has shown that music lessons had a positive impact on the brain's ability to make new connections.

To see more specific impacts, researchers recently studied students in a free music program that catered to at-risk children. After two years in the program, students showed nervous system growth related to language skills.

"Encourage your child to learn a new instrument."

Nina Kraus, PhD, of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University in Illinois, led the study.

Dr. Kraus and colleagues wanted to see how music training affected children's ability to process speech. Learning an instrument involves observing and producing sounds, so musical training may be related communication skills, the study authors noted.

The team observed 44 children — 25 girls and 19 boys. All were between 6 and 9 years old. The children were enrolled in Los Angeles's Harmony Project, which serves over 1,000 kids in gang-reduction zones.

The students were randomly assigned to take one or two years of class. They followed Harmony Project's standard courses and learned basic music skills before moving on to instrument lessons. After every year, the researchers tested each student's brain function.

Students wore headphones to listen to clicks and tones, including the syllables "ba" and "ga." While the students listened, the study authors measured their brain activity after each sound to test whether the students heard the sound and how quickly they recognized it.

The authors then mapped the neural responses to mark comparisons between one-year and two-year students.

Children with two years of instruction showed better recognition of syllables and speech sounds. Students with one year of lessons did not show significant changes in neural function.

Two-year students' results suggested how music engages networks in the brain. Music programs, therefore, can expose the brain to new processes helpful for daily communication, the researchers noted. With more hours of training, the researchers said, brain function would further improve.

Also, music programs keep children busy and channel energy. Programs like Harmony Project can keep students in school. In the past four years, 93 percent of the project's graduating seniors went on to college.

"Now we know this success is rooted, at least in part, in the unique brain changes imparted by making music," said Margaret Martin, founder of Harmony Project, in a press release.

The study was published online Sept. 2 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The National Association of Music Merchants, the Grammy Foundation and the Hugh Knowles Center funded the research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 1, 2014
Last Updated:
March 12, 2015