Musical training doesn’t just improve your ear for music — it
helps your ear for speech. That’s the takeaway from an unusual new study
published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found
that kids who took music lessons for two years didn’t just get better at
playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also
helped kids’ brains process language.
Something else unusual about the study: where it took place. It wasn’t a laboratory, but in the offices of Harmony Project in Los Angeles. It’s a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities.
nights a week, neuroscience and musical learning meet at Harmony’s
Hollywood headquarters, where some two-dozen children gather to learn
how to play flutes, oboes, trombones and trumpets. The program also
includes on-site instruction at many public schools across Los Angeles
Harmony Project is the brainchild of Margaret Martin,
whose life path includes parenting two kids while homeless before
earning a doctorate in public health. A few years ago, she noticed
something remarkable about the kids who had gone through her program.
“Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have
graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth,
Tulane, NYU,” Martin says, “despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more
in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our
There are plenty of possible explanations for that success. Some of
the kids and parents the program attracts are clearly driven. Then
there’s access to instruments the kids couldn’t otherwise afford, and
the lessons, of course. Perhaps more importantly, Harmony Project gives
kids a place to go after the bell rings, and access to adults who will
challenge and nurture them. Keep in mind, many of these students come
from families or neighborhoods that have been ravaged by substance abuse
or violence — or both.
Still, Martin suspected there was something else, too — something about actually playing music — that was helping these kids.
Enter neurobiologist Nina Kraus, who runs the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory
at Northwestern University. When a mutual acquaintance at the National
Institutes of Health introduced her to Martin, Kraus jumped at the
chance to explore Martin’s hunch and to study the Harmony Project kids
and their brains.
Breaking Down Brainwaves
Before we get to what, exactly, Kraus’ team did or how they did it, here’s a quick primer on how the brain works:
brain depends on neurons. Whenever we take in new information — through
our ears, eyes or skin — those neurons talk to each other by firing off
electrical pulses. We call these brainwaves. With scalp electrodes,
Kraus and her team can both see and hear these brainwaves.
some relatively new, expensive and complicated technology, Kraus can
also break these brainwaves down into their component parts — to better
understand how kids process not only music but speech, too. That’s
because the two aren’t that different. They have three common
denominators — pitch, timing and timbre — and the brain uses the same
circuitry to make sense of them all.
In other research, Kraus
had noticed something about the brains of kids who come from poverty,
like many in the Harmony Project. These children often hear fewer words
by age 5 than other kids do.
And that’s a problem, Kraus says,
because “in the absence of stimulation, the nervous system … hungry
for stimulation … will make things up. So, in the absence of sound,
what we saw is that there was just more random background activity,
which you might think of as static.”
In addition to that
“neural noise,” as Kraus calls it, ability to process sound — like
telling the difference between someone saying “ba” and “ga” — requires
microsecond precision in the brain. And many kids raised in poverty,
Kraus says, simply have a harder time doing it; individual sounds can
seem “blurry” to the brain. (To hear an analogy of this, using an iconic
Mister Rogers monologue — giving you some sense of what the brain of a
child raised in poverty might hear — be sure to listen to the audio
version of this story.)
Working with Harmony Project, Kraus randomly assigned several dozen
kids from the program’s waitlist into two groups: those who would be
studied after one year of music lessons and those who would be studied
after two years.
And what she found was that in the two-year
kids, the static didn’t go away. But their brains got better — more
precise — at processing sound. In short: less blur.
Why The Improvement?
goes back to pitch, timing and timbre. Kraus argues that learning music
improves the brain’s ability to process all three, which helps kids
pick up language, too. Consonants and vowels become clearer, and the
brain can make sense of them more quickly.
That’s also likely to make life easier at school, not just in music class but in math class, too — and everywhere else.
be clear, the study has its limits. It was small — roughly 50 kids,
ranging in age from 6 to 9. It wasn’t conducted in a lab. And it’s hard
to know if kids doing some other activity could have experienced similar
But 10th-grader Monica Miranda doesn’t need proof
that playing violin has helped her. She’s one of the first students in
the door at a recent Harmony Project re-enrollment event in the
auditorium of a nearby elementary school.
“I feel like music really connects with education,” she says. “It helps you concentrate more.”
Miranda is in her third year with Harmony Project.
I do my homework or I’m studying for something and I feel overwhelmed, I
usually go to my violin, to start playing it,” Miranda says. “I feel
like it relaxes my mind. And coming here to play with an orchestra, it’s
just amazing. I love it.”
And, the science says, her brain loves it, too.