New research from Dr. Nina Kraus at Northwestern University suggests that musical training can improve reading skills in children.
The research, being presented to the American Psychological Association, involved hundreds of children in poor areas of Chicago and Los Angeles, all areas with dropout rates of around 50%. All children in the study had similar reading levels and IQs.
One-half of the children were given music lessons for at least five hours each week. The other half were given no musical training. Those that took part in the lessons held constant in their reading skills, while the same skills of those with no training declined.
A decline in reading skills is typically seen among children in impoverished areas, furthering the educational gap, reports Samantha Abramowitz for PBS.
"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," said Dr. Kraus.
A second grouping belonging to the Harmony Project, a group that provides instruments and free music tuition to deprived children in urban settings, participated in band or choir lessons at school each day.
After two years of researchers recording their brainwaves in order to discover how the children responded to speech sounds, Dr. Kraus found that those who participated in the music lessons had faster and more accurate responses when distinguishing between sounds in noisy environments such as a classroom, than did the group who had no such musical training.
"Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn," Dr. Kraus said.
According to Dr. Kraus, "Music automatically sharpens the nervous system's response to sounds." This "remodel" of the brain allows for a stronger connection between sounds and their meanings.
A separate paper from Rice University's Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park reports that music aids in the development of language skills.
The paper looked into infants and the way they learn language. Co-author Anthony Brandt said "infants listen first to sounds of language and only later to its meaning." He refers to those sounds as "the most musical aspects of speech."
"As adults, people focus primarily on the meaning of speech. But babies begin by hearing language as "an intentional and often repetitive vocal performance," Brandt said. "They listen to it not only for its emotional content but also for its rhythmic and phonemic patterns and consistencies. The meaning of words comes later."
The paper was published online in this month's issue of Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience.
"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," Harmony Project founder Margaret Martin said.