Music Training Improves Memory, Reading Skills in Children
Musical training ‘can improve language and reading’
Learning to sing or play a musical instrument can help disadvantaged children improve their reading skills, US research suggests.
After a year of music lessons, the reading scores of nine and 10-year-olds held steady compared to a dip seen in those who were not taught any music.
Another group of musically-trained children were found to be better at processing sounds and language.
The research is being presented to the American Psychological Association.
We are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner… ”
Dr Nina KrausNorthwestern University
The research was led by Dr Nina Kraus at Northwestern University and involved hundreds of children at high schools in impoverished areas of Chicago and Los Angeles.
Her research had previously highlighted that learning music could improve the concentration, memory and focus of children in the classroom by improving their neural functions.
But much of the research had focused on the impact of music lessons on relatively affluent children.
In this study, Dr Kraus found that giving children regular group music lessons for five or more hours a week prevented any decline in reading skills, which would normally be expected in poorer areas.
Another group of teenage schoolchildren, from a poor area of Chicago, took part in band practice or choir practice every day at school as part of a music project.
Researchers recorded their brainwaves to assess how they responded to speech sounds.
After two years of musical training, the results showed the musical group was faster and more accurate at distinguishing one sound from another, particularly when there was background noise, compared to a group that did not participate in any musical activity.
Dr Kraus said this showed music could have a positive impact on the brain, which could also help learning, but it was not a quick fix.
“Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn,” he explained.
“While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap.”
All the children had similar IQs and reading ability at the start of the study.
Dr Kraus said music appeared to remodel the brain to improve the connections between sounds and meaning, the process by which babies learn to speak.
Children growing up in poorer areas with poorly-educated mothers are more likely to have ‘noisier brains’, she said.
This is because they are less likely to know and recognise a wide range of words and are therefore less able to respond to sounds and language.
“Music automatically sharpens the nervous system’s response to sounds,” Dr Kraus explained.
The children participating in the study were part of the Harmony Project, which provides instruments and free music tuition for American schoolchildren in certain deprived urban areas.
Nina Kraus, PhD, a neurobiologist at the Northwestern University said that the study supports the idea that musical training can help impoverished children improve their language and reading skills.
Previous research has shown that children who learn music do better than their peers in school. However, these studies were only conducted on children belonging to upper and middle class. The present study included students from musical training programs in Chicago and Los Angeles public schools.
“Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn,” said Kraus. “While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap.”
According to researchers, musical training improves brain’s ability to process sounds. Children who learn music are better equipped to understand sounds in a noisy background.Improvements in neural networks also strengthen memory and learning skills.
The study was conducted on two sets of children. One set was given music classes, while the other received Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps classes. Children in both groups had comparable IQs at the start of the study.
The researchers recorded children’s brain waves as they listened to repeated syllable against a soft background sound. The children were tested again after one year of music training/JROTC classes and again after a two-year study period. The team found that children’s neural responses were strengthened after two years of music classes. The study shows that music training isn’t a quick fix, but is a long-term approach to improve academic performance of children belonging to lower socioeconomic classes.
“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,” Margaret Martin, founder of Harmony Project in Los Angeles, said in a news release. “Learning to make music appears to remodel our kids’ brains in ways that facilitates and improves their ability to learn.”
The study was presented at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention.