Musical training doesn't just improve your ear for music — it also helps your ear for speech. That's the takeaway from an unusual new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found that kids who took music lessons for two years didn't just get better at playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also helped kids' brains process language.
And here's something else unusual about the study: where it took place. It wasn't a laboratory, but in the offices of Harmony Project in Los Angeles. It's a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities.
Two nights a week, neuroscience and musical learning meet at Harmony's Hollywood headquarters, where some two-dozen children gather to learn how to play flutes, oboes, trombones and trumpets. The program also includes on-site instruction at many public schools across Los Angeles County.
Harmony Project is the brainchild of Margaret Martin, whose life path includes parenting two kids while homeless before earning a doctorate in public health. A few years ago, she noticed something remarkable about the kids who had gone through her program.
"Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU," Martin says, "despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our programs."
There are plenty of possible explanations for that success. Some of the kids and parents the program attracts are clearly driven. Then there's access to instruments the kids couldn't otherwise afford, and the lessons, of course. Perhaps more importantly, Harmony Project gives kids a place to go after the bell rings, and access to adults who will challenge and nurture them. Keep in mind, many of these students come from families or neighborhoods that have been ravaged by substance abuse or violence — or both.
Still, Martin suspected there was something else, too — something about actually playing music — that was helping these kids.
Enter neurobiologist Nina Kraus, who runs the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. When a mutual acquaintance at the National Institutes of Health introduced her to Martin, Kraus jumped at the chance to explore Martin's hunch and to study the Harmony Project kids and their brains.
Breaking Down Brainwaves
Before we get to what, exactly, Kraus' team did or how they did it, here's a quick primer on how the brain works:
The brain depends on neurons. Whenever we take in new information — through our ears, eyes or skin — those neurons talk to each other by firing off electrical pulses. We call these brainwaves. With scalp electrodes, Kraus and her team can both see and hear these brainwaves.
Using some relatively new, expensive and complicated technology, Kraus can also break these brainwaves down into their component parts — to better understand how kids process not only music but speech, too. That's because the two aren't that different. They have three common denominators — pitch, timing and timbre — and the brain uses the same circuitry to make sense of them all.
In other research, Kraus had noticed something about the brains of kids who come from poverty, like many in the Harmony Project. These children often hear fewer words by age 5 than other kids do.
And that's a problem, Kraus says, because "in the absence of stimulation, the nervous system ... hungry for stimulation ... will make things up. So, in the absence of sound, what we saw is that there was just more random background activity, which you might think of as static."
In addition to that "neural noise," as Kraus calls it, ability to process sound — like telling the difference between someone saying "ba" and "ga" — requires microsecond precision in the brain. And many kids raised in poverty, Kraus says, simply have a harder time doing it; individual sounds can seem "blurry" to the brain. (To hear an analogy of this, using an iconic Mister Rogers monologue — giving you some sense of what the brain of a child raised in poverty might hear — be sure to listen to the audio version of this story.)
mproving Your Ear For Music, And Speech
Learning to play an instrument appears to strengthen the brain's ability to capture the depth and richness of speech sounds. These heat maps of brainwaves show how much music lessons improved kids' neurophysiological distinction of consonants.
You can help your child to succeed in band by supporting him in his efforts. Parental support is a crucial element in success, not only in band, but in all school activities. Help your child by obtaining the necessary equipment and music, encouraging practice, attending all performances and participating in band parent organizations.
Please contact your child's band director if you have questions or concerns. Remember, they are there to help your child, and will be happy to do what they can on your child's behalf.
These guidelines are designed to assist you in giving your child the best support possible for his or her musical endeavors. Music achievement requires effort over a period of time, and like any skill, interest counts far more than talent. With the right support from you, playing music will become a natural part of your child's life. We strongly believe that music study has numerous benefits for your son or daughter. These include a lifelong love of music, problem solving, teamwork, goal setting, self-expression, coordination, memory skills, self-confidence, concentration, poise, self-discipline, and much, much more.
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Some researchers believe that learning to play an instrument directly causes increases in general intelligence. Others acknowledge that music training can cause small increases in IQ, and that there is indeed a relationship between music lessons and substantial differences in intelligence. But they also say significant differences in IQ are impossible to attribute solely to learning and experience, and they're more likely to be attributed to genetics.
Regardless, research shows a strong correlation between increased general intelligence and music lessons, and the longer the duration of musical training, the better the student's intellectual functioning.
Children who take music lessons tend to be good students
Even when IQ is held constant, researchers have found that music lessons are also associated with academic achievement.
Study author E. Glenn Schellenberg explains:
"Besides being above-average in cognitive ability, these children may be unusually motivated to learn, able to concentrate, confident of their own ability, cooperative, interested, and so on. Accordingly, they typically perform well on a wide variety of tests, including tests of intelligence. Exposure to school and additional school-like activities, such as music lessons, may hone these abilities and exaggerate pre-existing advantages. When music training is simply substituted for an equally scholastic ability (e.g., studying psychology), however, there would be no additional advantage."
So, adding piano lessons to the roster could help kids become even more motivated to learn and able to concentrate than before, if they already posses these skills.
Playing the piano can teach you perseverance because it's not particularly easy
Doing hard things like playing the piano as a child can lead to greater success down the road, according to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth.
In 2013, she won a MacArthur "genius" grant for her uncovering of a powerful, success-driving personality trait called "grit." She's since authored a new book on the trait, aptly named "Grit."
Her research has correlated grit, defined as a "tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals," with educational attainment, higher GPA in Ivy League undergrads, greater retention in West Point cadets, and higher rank in the US National Spelling Bee.
To instill grit within her own two daughters, Duckworth says that her whole family abides by what she and her husband call the "hard thing rule:" Everyone must do something that requires practice, necessitates feedback telling you how you can get better, and requires trying again and again, like playing the piano. Everyone has to finish what they start. And everyone gets to pick the hard thing themselves.
Keeping up the hobby reinforces the idea you that you can get better at something with practice
While based purely on anecdotal evidence, Susan R. Barry, a professor of neurobiology at Mount Holyoke College who has struggled with vision problems, writes for Psychology Today that her childhood piano lessons taught her a valuable lesson about persistence:
"Most importantly, I learned that I could get better with practice, a concept that we all have been told but don't always embrace. Just like playing the piano, I could get better at seeing if I paid attention and practiced. Looking back, I realize that my experience with the piano gave me the confidence and skills to teach myself how to see in a new way."
SEE ALSO: Science says parents of successful kids have these 13 things in common
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The notes used in Western music—or, more accurately, the relationships between the notes used in Western music—have a strange power. Bobby McFerrin demonstrated this dramatically by showing that an audience somehow knows what notes to sing when he jumps around the stage. He remarked that “what’s interesting to me about that is, regardless of where I am, anywhere, every audience gets that.”
He’s suggesting that something about the relationships between pitches is culturally universal. All people seem to experience them the same way, regardless of where they're from or whether they have musical training. The question of universals in music perception is important because it can help us determine how much of our perception is shaped by culture and how much by biology. A paper in this week’s Nature reports on the surprising finding that a form of musical perception long thought to be common across all humans might not be so universal after all.
In music, relationships between notes can be used in two different ways. If pitches are played in sequence, the relationships between them are melodic, like the difference between each successive note in "Mary had a Little Lamb." When notes are played simultaneously, like a single strum of all the strings on a guitar or a choir singing, the relationships are harmonic. Different musical traditions have different rules about which melodic and harmonic relationships are permissible.
In Western music, certain harmonic combinations sound pleasant, or “consonant,” while “dissonant” combinations are unpleasant. Composers sometimes use dissonance (for example, in jazz or the Jawstheme tune) to create emotional, textural, or other artistic effects. The perception of consonance as pleasant and dissonance as unpleasant seems to hold true regardless of whether someone has musical training.