I got wind of a recent Huffington Post piece on music education through my childhood friend Dr. Nancy Gamso, woodwind faculty at Ohio Wesleyan University. The short article reports on important research findings on the power of music education to close achievement gaps. I’ll share it with you here and interpret it for you briefly in this post.
A study just out from Northwestern University shows results of research on the impact of music education on the nervous systems of at-risk children and their resulting achievement gains. Northwestern partnered with L.A.’s Harmony Project after the organization contacted researchers to share their own remarkable findings: Since 2008, “over 90 percent of high school seniors who participated in Harmony Project’s free music lessons went on to college, even though the high school dropout rates in the surrounding Los Angeles areas can reach up to 50 percent.” That statistic in itself is PHENOMENAL. Northwestern’s press release quotes Harmony Project founder, Dr. Margaret Martin, saying that “this success is rooted, at least in part, in the unique brain changes imparted by making music.”
“Researchers from the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern spent two summers with children in Los Angeles who were receiving music lessons through Harmony Project, a non-profit organization providing free music education to low-income students. In order to document how music education changed children’s brains, students were hooked up to a neural probe that allowed researchers to see how they distinguished similar speech sounds, a neural process that is linked to language and reading skills.”
Students from 6 to 9 years old were divided into two groups; one received one year of music lessons, and the other received two. The research showed that the impact on students’ brain development became significant following two years of musical training. According to Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory director, Dr. Nina Kraus, “These findings are a testament that it’s a mistake to think of music education as a quick fix, but that if it’s an ongoing part of children’s education, making music can have a profound and lifelong impact on listening and learning.”
I extrapolate some additional assertions from this study. First, these findings stress the role of music education in equalizing income-based and opportunity-based disparities. And there are other reasons for achievement gaps between students within similar age groups, including differences in “growth curves”, to which any parent with multiple children with very different developmental trajectories can attest. Also, sequential musical training includes both an auditory focus and use of visual symbols in music notation, thus impacting the developing brain in ways that enhance both auditory and visual processing. These are critical “sister capabilities” in the development of language and reading skills.
Sequential musical training impacts the developing brain in ways that enhance both auditory and visual processing.
Finally, in my experience, great parents from all walks of life want a holistic education for their children, including opportunities to study an instrument, and they are both busy and budget conscious. It can be confusing to invest in musical training if a child isn’t especially gifted with natural musical aptitude. Parents may assume that he or she won’t go on to “do anything” with that investment of time and money.
Music education impacts capabilities in life, not just in music.
This study and many others show us that music education impacts current and future capabilities in life, not just in music. Parents who invest in musical training without seeing heroic results can take heart in the realization that perhaps developing young “musicians” is not the primary goal. In fact, neurological development is the overarching goal and result, with lifelong implications for achievement in eventual areas of interest. Beautiful!