A recent study by Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in the United States, has demonstrated that students with access to musical training have a much greater capacity to perform academically. Learning to play an instrument not only improves listening and communication skills, but, amazingly, it also accelerates the rate at which the brain develops.
According to Kraus, it is an unfortunate fact in the US that music programmes are the first to be axed when a particular school finds themselves on a tight budget. The findings from the study are sure to make educators and policy makers rethink the importance of music in a child’s life. While music lessons might not be seen to provide important life skills, they do help students learn how to learn. They expand a child’s horizons and create opportunities that can link in with other areas of life.
Kraus followed forty students from low-income areas in Chicago, and conducted periodic tests on their auditory and sensory abilities. The study compared teens who frequently attended music groups and those who focused more on fitness. Those who attended at least two hours of band practice each week were much more likely to respond to small amounts of stimuli. For example, they could tell the difference between certain notes and changes in pitch more easily than those who had little or no exposure to music classes.
Another effect of steady exposure to music lessons is an improvement in language and memory skills, such as the ability to retain new information about a language. At the beginning and end of a three year period, each participant was judged on their ability to complete linguistic tasks. They were also asked to speak out loud to gauge their phonological ability. A list of words was repeated to the participants and those who had taken a music class instead of a fitness class for the three years were much more likely to be able to recall words of a non-English origin.
The fact that Kraus studied the poorest students and found a remarkable increase in their ability has far-reaching effects. Providing just one music class per week could be seen as a way to help close the gap between students from disadvantaged areas and those from high-income families, who have many more resources available to them. A holistic approach to education which incorporates music as an integral part of the learning process, especially in the formative teenage years, would be beneficial both for the individual students and for society as a whole. This could play an important role in the efforts of both the UK and the US to ‘leave no child behind’ in our advancing world.