Music makes you smarter. That’s the conclusion from a recent study of children who spent at least two years learning to play a musical instrument at The Harmony Project, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides free music lessons to low-income students from gang-ridden neighborhoods.
The Harmony Project’s founder, Margaret Martin, noticed several years ago that many of the program’s music students were not only graduating high school, but heading on to UCLA, Tulane, and other notable universities. They were regularly beating the odds compared to their neighborhood peers, and she wondered why.
Researchers at Northwestern University took a look at The Harmony Project’s students, analyzing their graduation rates and other markers of academic success. The study tracked 44 students over two years as they learned to play an instrument. The results, published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience, show evidence of measurable changes in the brain. The researchers believe the musical training caused those changes, allowing the students to process sounds more easily. That increased ability directly translates into improved reading and speech skills.
Nina Kraus, the study’s lead researcher and director of Northwestern’s auditory neuroscience laboratory, compared the difference to that of building up the body through exercise.
“I like to say to people: You’re not going to get physically fit just watching sports,” she said.
The findings provide a welcome boost for advocates of music education. Music programs are often at risk in public schools as governing boards struggle to balance competing financial interests. Music classes, bands, and ensembles can seem like “extras,” not worth fighting for when budgets are tight and public scrutiny is focused on math and reading scores.
But unlike most other subjects, playing a musical instrument engages students holistically. It challenges them academically, requiring literacy and math skills ranging from mundane to sophisticated. It requires students to experience learning physically—moving fingers, arms, legs, and even feet to produce the proper sound. It probes students’ emotional and spiritual depths, asking meaningful, artistic questions that often have deeply personal answers.
April Benasich, a professor of neuroscience at Rutgers University, said Kraus’ previous research has demonstrated the value of music in improving concentration, memory, and focus in children.
Benasich, who researches early brain development, said the study’s findings are “a game-changer for both the scientific and public policy domains, particularly in an era when these sorts of enrichment activities are being aggressively eliminated from our schools.”
Adelina Flores, whose 11-year-old daughter, America, was a test subject, said she wasn’t surprised by the results. Her daughter had already told her she was getting better at math because playing music had taught her to divide notes into fractions and count them out in measures.
“She’s improved a lot through this,” Flores said, adding, “And she’s grown to be more confident too.”