By Liana Heitin
September 2, 2014
Elementary students who participated in a music enrichment program for two years showed improvement in their ability to process speech sounds, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The study adds to the body of research suggesting that playing music helps students' cognitive development.
Forty-four students, ages 6 to 9, who attended music training through the Harmony Project, a nonprofit music education program serving low-income students in Los Angeles, participated in the study. At the beginning of the after-school program, students received two hours per week of instruction on pitch, rhythm, notation, and other fundamental music skills. Several months into the program, or more, depending on the availability of instruments, students began receiving at least four hours per week of instruction and learned to play music.
The researchers, led by Nina Kraus, a principal investigator at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, used a neural probe to test the speed of students' auditory processing when hearing two consonant-vowel pairs: \ba\ and \ga\. "What we want to know is, how does the brain automatically respond to speech sounds?" Kraus said in an interview. "We're able to capture neural timing on the order of microseconds. It's very precise." Students were tested before the program began, and at the end of one and two years.
After two years of participation in the program, students "showed a marked improvement in the neural differentiation of the syllables," according to the published study. Researchers also found that students with more hours of instrumental training showed larger improvements. "Certainly, it is the act of making music that is important for these changes," said Kraus. "Just listening to music, you won't see these kinds of changes in people."
Those students who only participated in the program for one year—and therefore got less instrumental training—did not demonstrate similar neural changes.
Another recent study of primary students in Germany found that faster auditory processing was associated with better spelling and reading skills, my colleague Sarah Sparks wrote in December.
The new study "has shown us it is possible to see some fundamental biological changes that are tracking with music experiences that were delivered in a group and community-based environment," said Kraus.
Below is a segment PBS NewsHour posted in January about the Harmony Project and Kraus' preliminary research.