A study at Northwestern University School of Communication has shown that even when introduced as late as high school, music training may help improve the teenage brain’s responses to sound, and sharpen hearing and language skills. The research, as outlined in an article published in the July 20, 2015 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), indicates that music instruction helps enhance skills that are critical for brain development and academic success.

“While music programs are often the first to be cut when the school budget is tight, these results highlight music’s place in the high school curriculum,” said Nina Kraus, PhD, senior study author and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the School of Communication. “Although learning to play music does not teach skills that seem directly relevant to most careers, the results suggest that music may engender what educators refer to as ‘learning to learn.’”

Kraus and colleagues recruited 40 Chicago-area high school freshmen in a study that began shortly before school started. They followed these children longitudinally until their senior year. According to Kraus and her co-authors, gains were seen during group music classes that were included in high school curricula, suggesting that in-school training accelerates neurodevelopment.

Nearly half the students had enrolled in band classes, the researchers report, which involved two to three hours a week of instrumental group music instruction in school. The rest had enrolled in junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), which emphasized fitness exercises during a comparable period. Both groups attended the same schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Electrode recordings at the start of the study and three years later revealed that the music group showed more rapid maturation in the brain’s response to sound. The music group also demonstrated prolonged heightened brain sensitivity to sound details. While all participants improved in language skills important for language and reading, the improvement was greater for those in music classes, compared with the ROTC group.

According to the authors, their study supports the idea that the adolescent brain remains receptive, and high school music training might help hone brain development and improve language skills. The stable processing of sound details, important for language skills, is known to be diminished in children raised in poverty, increasing the likelihood that music education may offset this negative influence on sound processing.

Dr Kraus and Samira Anderson, AuD, published the article, “Music Benefits Across Lifespan: Enhanced Processing of Speech in Noise,” in the July 2014 edition of The Hearing Review.

Source: Julie Deardorff, Northwestern University; PNAS

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