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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Northwestern Study: Community Music Programs Enhance Brain Function in At-Risk Children

A new Northwestern University study provides the first direct evidence that a community music program for at-risk youth has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.

Two years of music lessons improved the precision with which the children’s brains distinguished similar speech sounds, a neural process that is linked to language and reading skills. One year of training, however, was insufficient to spark changes in the nervous system.

“This research demonstrates that community music programs can literally ‘remodel’ children’s brains in a way that improves sound processing, which could lead to better learning and language skills,” said study lead author Dr. Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles professor of communication sciences in the School of Communication and of neurobiology and physiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

“Music Enrichment Programs Improve the Neural Encoding of Speech in At-Risk Children”, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, is one of the few studies to evaluate biological changes following participation in an existing, successful music education program.

Dr. Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, and her team collaborated with Harmony Project. For more than a decade, Harmony Project has provided free music instruction to thousands of disadvantaged children from gang-reduction zones in Los Angeles. Children between the ages of 6 and 9 participated in the study. The research team traveled to Los Angeles to evaluate them as they enrolled in Harmony Project’s programs and returned each summer for the following two years to evaluate them longitudinally.

“We used a quick but powerful neural probe that allowed us to gauge speech processing with unprecedented precision. With it, we found that the brain changes only followed two years of music training,” Dr. Kraus said. “These findings are a testament that it’s a mistake to think of music education as a quick fix, but that if it’s an ongoing part of children’s education, making music can have a profound and lifelong impact on listening and learning.”

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