Project gives young brains the benefits of musical training

March 8, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
The percentage of students who receive music education has been in decline for decades. The Harmony Project, a music program for inner-city kids in Los Angeles partners with a neurobiologist to study the impact of music training on the learning skills of poor children.

This report was originally broadcast on Jan. 4, 2014. 

JOSH ARONSON: Vianey Calixto lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and like many of her friends she was struggling in school.

Vianey’s interest in learning music prompted her parents to enroll her in a music program in their neighborhood called the Harmony Project. In the three years since, much has changed in Vianey’s life.

VIANEY CALIXTO:   Music is like a dialogue because we can play a certain thing  – let’s say the violins can play something back –it could be the same melody different notes and it’s like a conversation talking back and forth.

JOSH ARONSON: Serving more than 2000 students with a budget of 2.5 million dollars, the mostly privately funded Harmony Project is filling a gap in low-income areas where schools have cut music education programs.  Students get at least 5 hours of music classes and rehearsals each week year round. For poor students it’s tuition free including their instrument.

Fifty-nine-year-old Margaret Martin started the Harmony Project in 2001 after witnessing something on the streets of her hometown – Los Angeles.

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MARGARET MARTIN:  This party of badass LA gang members comes walking through a farmers’ market and stops to listen to a tiny kid playing Brahms on a tiny violin. They had shaved heads, tats, gang clothing, and attitude. After five or six minutes without saying a word to one another I watched those gang members pull out their own money and lay it gently in the child’s case. Those gang members were teaching me that they would rather be doing what the child was doing than what they were doing but they never had the chance.

MARGARET MARTIN:  Harmony Project is a researched-based replicable program and we commit to our students for their entire childhood.

JOSH ARONSON: The programs are started purposely in tough inner city areas to serve children of poverty.

MARGARET MARTIN:  We know that dropout rates are about 50 percent in the neighborhoods where we built Harmony Project Programs.

More than 80 percent of poor black and Hispanic kids do not read at grade level.

JOSH ARONSON: It’s well documented that children whose mothers have little education are rarely being read to and verbal interaction is minimal. Scientists believe that this not only puts them behind in school but those children rarely catch up because their brains are not be developing as rapidly as the brains of more stimulated kids.

MARGARET MARTIN:  Early sustained music learning is actually the frame upon which education itself can be built for low-income kids.

JOSH ARONSON: Margaret Martin was convinced of that because of the graduation rate of kids who have gone through her program. This year, she says, 93 percent of them finished high school in four years and went to college. But Martin acknowledges she does not have the formal training to prove that music helps kids grasp language better and become more proficient readers. So she enlisted the help of this woman. Her name is Dr. Nina Kraus. She is a neurobiologist at NorthwesternUniversity and for 25 years she has studied how the brain processes information – the neurobiology of auditory learning.

JOSH ARONSON: What is the connection between sound and reading?

DR. NINA KRAUS: Well there’s a connection with sound and reading in that when you’re learning to read you need to connect the sounds of words that you’ve heard for many years with the symbol on the page. So you’re making a sound to meaning connection.

JOSH ARONSON:   No one has ever proven conclusively that music improves learning, and some studies have found no link at all. But, after being contacted by Martin, the Northwestern scientist designed tests to measure the impact music had on this group of low-income kids.

Dr. Kraus started in 2011 with a group of 80 students from an LA gang zone. The students came from similar backgrounds and were all motivated to learn music at the Harmony Project. Half the kids were selected to start music study then and the other half, the control group, waited a year to begin. Dr. Kraus’s team took a mobile testing lab to LA at the beginning and then once a year for two years, to assess the change in the kids’ brain response in specific areas important for good reading and learning skills.

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More about the study of music and the human brain from The Music Instinct

JOSH ARONSON:  What are some of the tests like that you actually do on these kids to measure these things?

DR. NINA KRAUS:  We’re very interested in children’s rhythmic skills. And so we ask them to tap along with a steady rhythm.

So if you just present a beat like on a metronome and you ask a child to tap along with a beat, that ability is linked with reading ability.

LAB TECHNICIAN: Ready set go.

DR. NINA KRAUS:  We ask them to listen to words or parts of words…

LAB TECHNICIAN: Imagine that you are at a party – there will be a woman talking and several other talkers in the background.

DR. NINA KRAUS:  We have them to listen sentences that are presented in noisy backgrounds and they have to repeat back as much of the sentence that they were able to hear.

SPEAKER RECORDING AND THEN KID IN THE LAB REPEATS:  The pencil was cut to be sharp ….

DR. NINA KRAUS:  And of course the background gets noisier and nosier and it gets harder and harder to hear the sounds.

CHILD IN LAB:   A toad and a frog each had to tell a tale

DR. NINA KRAUS:   People who had musical training are better at hearing speech in noise. And it’s not that different from what you’re asking your nervous system to do when you’re listening for a teacher’s voice in a noisy classroom.

And so we just simply know that if we ask people to repeat back sentences that are presented to them in background noise that if you have musical training, that you are better at repeating back the sentences accurately than if you did not have that musical training.

JOSH ARONSON: I guess that’s especially true when a child is sitting in an orchestra and has to distinguish the sound he’s making, and his section is making, from all the other sounds in the orchestra.

DR. NINA KRAUS: Exactly.

JOSH ARONSON: So the red is the group of kids who have had music experience and between year one and year two the perception in noise is a straight line up.

And the black line represents the control group that started music in year two. Their comprehension of meaning in a noisy environment goes up only then, after they started music.

DR. NINA KRAUS: And the kids who have now had two years of musical experience are continuing to make gains.

Music education is an important investment in teaching a child all kinds of skills.

JOSH ARONSON: Dr Kraus is still analyzing data. But she says preliminary findings suggest music may enhance the neurological development of kids in the Harmony program who had been behind in school.

DR. NINA KRAUS:  You can document that kids who have had musical education now have nervous systems that respond more accurately and precisely to meaningful elements in language.

VIANEY CALIXTO: In science I had very low grades and then once I started learning about music and being able to practice and concentrating, my science grades have gone higher and so have my other grade in other subjects. I would concentrate in my music and it was something to be focused on and not be bothered by anyone. I was using that on my homework and on any type of class work also. Science is now one of my best subjects.

JOSH ARONSON: And you like it now?

VIANEY CALIXTO: Yes I love it.

JOSH ARONSON: What do you say to those who say …well these kids all listen to music? They are listening all the time. Why doesn’t that work?

MARGARET MARTIN:  Nobody ever got fit watching spectator sports. Plugging in and listening to music — it doesn’t fix your brain. Doing it transforms your nervous system. It makes you basically a better learner.

JOSH ARONSON: Who‘s to say that arts education in general whether it’s dance or painting might be as beneficial as music in terms of developing learning skills for these kids?

DR. NINA KRAUS:    There have been a number of studies. And the language abilities seem to be strengthened by the music instruction more than the art. And so these language-based skills seem to profit from music instruction.

JOSH ARONSON: The Harmony Project has 17 sites in Los Angeles and one in Ventura. And there are 16 more in three other states.

CONDUCTOR: Here we go. From the Allegro. Measure 37…

JOSH ARONSON: What are the goals, where do you want to take this?

MARGARET MARTIN:  Oh man, my dream is to build Harmony Project programs in inner cities throughout the country because our students are achieving their unique potential. They are blossoming.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.