For several years, Dr. Nina Kraus and her team from Northwestern University used the most advanced technology for brain analysis to see the effect of music on the brain. The study, which is openly accessible online on the journal of Frontiers in Psychology showed that the brain became better and physically stimulated when exposed to music lessons, as long as students are also active participants. The study involved directly accessing the brain via strategically placed electrode wires with button sensors on the heads of students to measure brain activity.
The data the scientists gathered were from students who were participating in the Harmony Project. This is an after-school music education program that the city of New York provides for children in underserved communities. The study became very significant because the language skills of the underprivileged children are generally lower. Dr. Kraus explained that this is due to the environment they live in, where the setting is noisier; the children do not usually hear complex concepts, sentences and words, and they are deprived of a linguistic experience – factors that could cause the language areas of the brain to be weaker compared to others.
Previous and current studies
Dr. Kraus already had done previous studies on the relation of music and language, wherein she found that music education contributed much to speech processing and reading. In this current study, she and her team realized that the type of music education received by the students had an impact on how much the brain gains from it. They found out that children who learned to play musical instruments gained better language skills than students who only took courses in music appreciation. They were also able to witness how students receiving music education were able to differentiate between speech sounds that are alike.
The researchers said that the efficiency of speech processing is closely related to reading because the latter needs the ability to divide speech strings into separate units of sound. Still, Dr. Kraus cautions that merely taking music lessons would not provide an immediate solution to deficiency in language skills. The language development of an individual depends on the level of engagement. If the student attends the music classes regularly, there will be a larger improvement in the speech processing function of the brain and conversely, the reading skills of the student within two years.
Success of the Harmony Project
Even without the conclusive study, those that are involved in the Harmony Project had already realized that the academic skills of students participating in the program have improved. The neighborhoods where the music program runs typically has a 50 percent dropout rate in high school. But for the children who are participating in the program, nearly 90 percent went on to enroll in college.
Margaret Martin, the founder of Harmony Project requested Dr. Kraus a few years ago to do the study to find scientific evidence regarding the remarkable success of the students participating in the music program.