Music Training Improves Adolescent Brain Development

Music training helps the teenage brain hone skills linked to academic success.

Posted Jul 28, 2015

Pixabay/Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/Public Domain

In a previous Psychology Today blog post, "Musical Training Optimizes Brain Function," I wrote about a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience which reported that playing an instrument before age seven benefits brain structure and function throughout a person's lifespan. 

A new study by Nina Kraus, PhD, and colleagues from Northwestern University reports that beginning music training as late as high school can improve the teenage brain’s response to sound, sharpen language skills, and improve academic performance. 

The July 2015 study, "Music Training Alters the Course of Adolescent Auditory Development," was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For this study, Kraus and colleagues recruited Chicago-area high school freshmen and followed these students longitudinally until their senior year.

About half of the students were enrolled in band classes, which involved two to three hours a week of instrumental group music instruction in school. The rest of the participants enrolled in junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), which emphasized physical activity during the same time frame. Both groups attended the same schools in low-income Chicago neighborhoods.

Funding for Music Training May Improve Academic Test Scores

Currently, over 50 percent of children attending public schools come from low-income households. The authors note that stable processing of sound details, which is fundamental for language skills, is known to be less developed in children raised in poverty.

I wrote extensively about the impact of growing up in poverty on brain development last week in a Psychology Today blog post, "Growing Up in Poverty Has Detrimental Impacts on Brain Structure." 

The double whammy of growing up in a low-income household is that budget cuts to arts and music programs are more prevalent in poorer zip codes—where they could be most beneficial. This new study highlights the potential of music education to offset the detriments of growing up in poverty and confirms that the adolescent brain remains receptive to the benefits of music training during the teenage years.

When schools across the country face budget constraints, the knee-jerk reaction is to cut arts and music education. In 2013, the Chicago Teachers Union estimated that of 1,715 teachers who were laid off, 159 of them were in the art or music departments. When Philadelphia’s city schools were dealing with a $304 million budget deficit, they responsed by completely eliminating funding for art and music programs.

Under the current public education system, the success and merit of students, teachers, and schools is disproportionately measured by standardized test results for the Common Core standards and No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

It makes sense that music training and the arts might seem frivolous based on someone studying for an academic test. However, this new research shows that music training is a valuable investment for a child's overall brain development and his or her long-term academic and life success. Also, the joy of playing music and the reward of mastering a musical instrument are immeasurable. 

In the recent Northwestern study, the researchers took electrode recordings at the start of the study and three years later. The results show that participants in the music group had more rapid maturation in the brain's response to sound. They also demonstrated prolonged heightened brain sensitivity to sound details.

Nina Kraus, senior study author and director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the School of Communication, said in a press release, 

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. 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."

Pixabay/Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/Public Domain

Conclusion: Music Training Enhances Skills Necessary for Life Success 

The benefits of musical training begun early in life have been well established. This new study shows that music training initiated as late as adolescence can enhance neural processing of sound and result in better language skills. In-school music training has the ability to alter the course of adolescent brain development. 

The research suggests that high school music training benefits brain plasticity during adolescence and improves language skills. In a press release the authors conclude, "Our results support the notion that the adolescent brain remains receptive to training, underscoring the importance of enrichment during the teenage years." 

Please check out the "Brainvolts" interactive website created by Nina Kraus and the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory here. The website is updated regularly. You can start with the "friendly overview" of slide shows under 'music' and 'neuroeducation' for the basics.

Below is a YouTube clip that illustrates the biological approach to auditory processing created by Nina Kraus and her team at Northwestern University:

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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