a woman playing the violinMany studies demonstrate that learning a musical instrument has lasting benefits for young people. New research from Northwestern University suggests that two years of music classes can help close the achievement gap between students from high-income and low-income families. The researchers discovered that learning music affects the nervous system in a ways that can help students do better in school. The findings emphasize the importance of providing music education to students in all socioeconomic strata.

The researchers monitored the progress of hundreds of students from Los Angeles and Chicago public schools. The students in Los Angeles were part of the Harmony Project, a non-profit organization that provides music education in low-income communities. The students received music training beginning in first or second grade. The students in the control group were drawn from those on the program’s waiting list. The researchers tracked the students’ reading scores.

The students from Chicago were from three high schools. Half of the Chicago students participated in band or choir each day. The other half participated in Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (JROTC) classes, which focus on developing character traits. At the outset of the study, both the music and JROTC groups had comparable IQ and reading scores. During the study, the researchers recorded information about the students’ brain activity while they performed a task to identify a particular sound from among background noise. They tested the students two more times: one year and two years after the study began.

Music training results in better reading scores and affects the nervous system’s ability to process sounds. The Los Angeles children on the Harmony Project’s waiting list had lower reading scores by the end of the study. The children who studied music during the same period had unchanged reading scores. The students in Chicago who took music classes had faster and more precise neural responses to sound than the JROTC students. The strengthened responses were not present one year into the study, but were present after two years.

The results suggest that music could help students develop improved memory and attention skills. These skills could help students do better in school, especially for students from low-income households.

“We’re spending millions of dollars on drugs to help kids focus and here we have a non-pharmacologic intervention that thousands of disadvantaged kids devote themselves to in their non-school hours — that works. Learning to make music appears to remodel our kids’ brains in ways that facilitates and improves their ability to learn,” stated Margaret Martin, co-presenter of the research.

This research was presented at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention.

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