Music Helps Impoverished Children Perform Better in School

by Elizabeth Lee

October 08, 2014

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Researchers have found that the brains of children who grow up in poverty process sounds differently from children who are better off. But a study shows musical training can tune the brain so that these children of poverty can better process what they hear.

Karina Reyes, 16, fell in love when she saw the trombone.

I guess its the sound and the feel and how it looked, and it was not ordinary for a girl to play trombone," she said.

For the last five years, Reyes has been attending a free music program called Harmony Project. Program founder Margaret Martin says the original aim of the program was to help children in poor, often violent, neighborhoods stay out of trouble by staying in school and graduating high school. But there also was an unexpected result.

Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU," said Martin.

Martin says some of the students also pursue highly technical degrees.

Neuroscience pre-med, civil engineering, medical engineering, cultural anthropology, we even have a Fulbright scholar. It didnt make any sense," she said.

It did not make sense until researchers put sensors on the children's heads and measured how they responded to sounds, before and after they learned music at Harmony Project. Northwestern University neuroscientist Nina Kraus says they found that poor children process sound differently from their more affluent counterparts.

We found that the neuro signature for poverty was that the children were processing the details of sounds less precisely," she said.

But when they start learning music, something changes after two years.

So we were able to determine that the children who took part in music lessons had nervous systems that responded to speech sounds in a more precise manner," she said. "There was a dosage effect so the children who spent more hours engaged in music classes were the children who showed the largest gains."

Kraus says her study with Harmony Project only looked at a small pool of students.

Were really just talking about 100 here, 100 there; these are relatively small scale studies," she said.

She'd like other researchers to expand the study to thousands of students in multiple locations. But many of the young musicians at Harmony Project, like Ivan Ignacio Arce, say they are living proof that music helps them improve academically.

After the Harmony Project, I get a new understanding, going to class participating, having an open mind, discussions, talking to my teacher, interacting," said Arce.

Karina Reyes says she also sees a connection between music and academics.

Math is like kind of easier [be] cause of rhythms; its easier to count, easier to calculate. Yeah, I have seen some improvements with music," she said.

For Reyes and the other students here, theyre not playing just to do better in school, theyre here because of the love of their instruments and the friendships formed through music.