Study: Learning a musical instrument boosts language, reading skills

BY samantha abramowitz  August 9, 2014 at 3:23 PM EST


Learning to sing or play a musical instrument can improve language and reading skills of disadvantaged children, according to a new study released Friday.

Nina Kraus, PhD, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, found that musical training has an impact in strengthening neural functions as well as a connection with sound and reading of children in impoverished areas.

Her previous research focused on the impact of music lessons on children of the middle or upper class. This study, which is being presented to the American Psychological Association, included hundreds of students in Los Angeles and Chicago public schools with about 50 percent dropout rates.

“Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn,” Kraus said in a press release from the APA. “While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap.”

In the study, half the subjects received regular group music lessons for five or more hours a week, while the other half had no musical training.

According to researchers, the reading skills of children with formal music training remained the same over a year long period, while the other students’ reading scores declined.

Another group of students, part of the Harmony Project, a music program for inner city kids, took part in band or choir practice every day after schools.

After two years, researchers found that students with musical training were faster and more precise in hearing speech in background noise, which Kraus connects to students having the ability to concentrate on a teacher’s voice in a noisy classroom.

Children in both groups had comparable IQs and reading ability at the start of the study.

Kraus conducted the study with Margaret Martin, founder of The Harmony Project, who was featured on the PBS NewsHour earlier this year talking about the benefits of musical training on young brains.

“We’re spending millions of dollars on drugs to help kids focus and here we have a non-pharmacologic intervention that thousands of disadvantaged kids devote themselves to in their non-school hours — that works,” Martin said.