The Science of Music: Why Playing Instruments Is Smart for Kids’ Brains

How can you tell if a child might have difficulties learning languages?

Here’s a simple method that takes less than 30 seconds: ask her/him to repeat a drumbeat.

Image by Grant Slater, courtesy of KPCC

Image by Grant Slater, courtesy of KPCC

While far from foolproof, matching rhythms may be an early indicator of potential language learning capacity, according to Nina Kraus, Ph.D, an auditory neurobiologist and professor at Northwestern University who spoke at last Sunday’s KPCC Crawford Family Forum in Pasadena. Since music and language are remarkably similar in the neural processes they employ, she said, it’s possible to predict on a very basic level how children who find it difficult to follow beats might have problems in school.

Along with panelists Suzanne Gindin, founder of the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra (BHCYO), and Kristen Madsen, Senior Vice President of The GRAMMY Foundation & MusiCares, Kraus discussed her research on how music and the brain are interconnected. The key takeaway was how music—specifically, how playing an instrument—can help overcome learning obstacles for children born into poverty, who tend to have greater difficulties with school.

Why do low-income children often struggle more academically?

How music strengthens the brain

Courtesy of Northwestern University Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory

According to Kraus, to succeed in school, it’s necessary for the brain to process sounds quickly and accurately. If kids constantly have to spend extra time interpreting what they hear, it’s easier for them to fall behind. That’s where low-income children are at a disadvantage: during early childhood development, their brains often don’t get the aural training and refinement they need.

To preface her research, Kraus mentioned a recent article in The New Yorker titled “The Talking Cure,” which found that the more parents talked to their children, the better their brains developed in regions that capture sound. However, scientists also discovered that in the families they studied, parents with lower incomes tended to converse much less with their children than those in other socioeconomic classes, possibly due to the challenges of living in poverty. According to The New Yorker‘s Margaret Talbot, “When daily life is stressful and uncertain and dispiriting, it can be difficult to summon up the patience and the playfulness for an open-ended conversation with a small, persistent, possibly whiny child.”

While unintended, this absence of speech forces the developing brain to react. According to Kraus, it begins to compensate by filling the sound void with “neural noise,” making it harder to process noises and thus, to learn.

What exactly does this neural noise sound like? In an audio clip, Kraus compared the simulated auditory experience of a musician, whose sound regions of the brain are highly developed, to that of a child in poverty. It’s the difference between hearing a crystal clear recording of a man speaking versus a grainy, garbled version of the same speech—like listening to the radio with either perfect or flawed reception.

Auditory-deprived children’s brains also react differently to sound than those of musicians. When tested, musicians tended to respond to the same aural stimulation consistently, but children in poverty were less reliable in their interpretations. Even if they heard the same word, their brains reacted differently each time—which makes learning and academic success significantly more challenging.

How does playing a musical instrument help develop the brain?

Courtesy of Joanna Friedman

Courtesy of Joanna Friedman

Fortunately, fixing neural noise is where playing a musical instrument can make a difference. There are a lot of similarities between speech and music making in the nervous system; both processes tap the sensory, cognitive and reward circuits in the brain. Unsurprisingly, musicians exhibit strong auditory processing skills—the exact skills that are essential to learning languages for young children.

“The active making of music changes how the brain responds to sound in some of the ways that are diminished in a child who is growing up with linguistic deprivation,” said Kraus to a packed crowd. “What we see in musicians…is a precision in response to sound details. The microsecond timing needed to distinguish ‘bad’ from ‘dad’ is very, very good.”

Kraus’ research at the Northwestern Auditory Neuroscience Lab and with Los Angeles-based non-profit Harmony Project supports these ideas. Harmony Project, which provides musical education for low-income youth through after-school programs, worked with Kraus to study their students after either one or two years of playing an instrument five days a week.

What they found was that while there were some positive effects on the brain after one year, the best results came with more time. After two years, neural noise didn’t go away, but the brain became much better at processing sounds, thanks to the constant refinement of the nervous system with music practice. It’s a process that takes a lot of dedication and effort, but the payoff is worth it.

“Certainly something that is going to have a fundamental, powerful impact on the nervous system is going to be something that takes time,” Krauss told the audience. “It’s the repetition—the constant reinforcement of neural circuits that shapes us into the biological, evolutionary experiments that each of us is.”

Image by LA Johnson and Alyson Hurt, courtesy of NPR

Image by LA Johnson and Alyson Hurt, courtesy of NPR

With rising cuts in arts education, nonprofits like Harmony Project and the BHCYO have been stepping in to provide music education where schools aren’t. However, they don’t always have the resources to fill the gap, and it becomes difficult for the students to attend as well. According to Gindin, over 65 students showed up at her door on the first day it opened, but the number soon dropped off to 25 simply because outside circumstances make it difficult for low-income children to practice music.

“It’s hard to play an instrument. Kids who are raised in poverty—there are so many distractions,” said Gindin. “I’m really left with a core group of students with a dedicated set of parents or who live within a very short walk of where we rehearse that are able to stick with us…[but they] are seeing tremendous results.”

In addition to quantifiable benefits like higher IQs and better GPAs, Gindin has also heard many anecdotes from her students and their parents. Not only have grades gone up, but also these children are more interested in what they’re learning. And they’ve made more friends—the result of being in a community setting, learning and playing music together.

Still, it’s hard to convince school boards and principals, especially in cash-strapped low-income districts, to fund the arts when they are not a priority subject in standardized testing and other academic benchmarks. Even though the financial threshold for improving music programs is relatively low compared to other subjects, schools are simply not investing in these curriculums.

“We’re giving grants between $500 and $2,500, and in some cases doubling, tripling, quadrupling what they have to spend on music in that school,” said Madsen of her work with the GRAMMY Signature Schools Program. “It takes a little bit of money and a dedicated, impassioned teacher who is willing to do something a little bit differently, to look for those ways out of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles.”

When the many challenges to providing a music program are overcome, the results are often magical, not only for developing brains but also for the students themselves. As Daisy, a BHCYO member, shyly put it before she performed a violin solo for the crowd, “When I play, I play with all my heart.” She and the other young musicians in the orchestra are grateful that there are programs enabling them to learn music, because it’s something they love and might not have been able to do otherwise.

That’s what Madsen believes we should remember when it comes to supporting the arts: “No matter what’s happening in the brain, or why it’s good for us, or how we will be smarter, or what we will do to contribute to society, playing music is a joyful experience that everyone should have the opportunity [to do].”

There are multiple ways to get involved with supporting arts education, including: contacting local principals and school boards and supporting research like Kraus’. You can also attend special youth performances at Levitt venues—check your local Levitt’s roster during concert season and help support music education for all!

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  1. Pingback: What are YOU doing to celebrate Music in Our Schools Month? - reVerb

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