Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory




Community Outreach


Impact of poverty, music, bilingualism, and concussion on the brain

What disrupts our ability to make sense of sound?


Making sense of sound is one of the hardest jobs the brain has to do, which is why this fast, delicate, and intricate ability can be disrupted by a head injury. Using the frequency-following response, we can measure sound processing in the brain. Our research shows that children with a concussion have weaker brain responses to sound. But such response improves as children recover.

Poverty and Language Disorders

Poverty-induced lingustic deprivation and developmental language disorders can diminish sound processing in the brain. Our research tells us that brain functions important for classroom learning are often diminished in at-risk children.

Music can boost sound and language processing in the brain

Making music changes the brain, and these changes have tangible impacts on listening skills, learning, and cognition. Historically, research has focused on children enrolled in private lessons beginning at a young age. Through multiyear partnerships with inner-city schools and community-based programs serving disadvantaged grade schoolers and high schoolers, the Kraus Lab tells a new and promising story.

community music programs for grade schoolers

We partnered with Harmony Project, a community mentorship foundation that provides free music instruction to gradeschoolers from Los Angeles gang reduction zones. After two years—but not one—music training engendered meaningful improvement in their brains’ processing of speech, known to track with literacy and listening outcomes. Engagement influenced improvement, with more active students (those who played an instrument for instance, in contrast to those who took music appreciation classes) making greater gains. Moreover, in contrast to the control group whose literacy performance declined (as expected for low SES students), a similar dip was buffered by music training, with music students staying on track with national norms. Finally, the ability to understand speech in noisy backgrounds also improved in the music group.

In-school music for high schoolers

In a second partnership we worked with the Chicago Public Schools, to investigate the impact of music training initiated during adolescence. We found that starting music lessons as late as high school still produced enriching neural effects. Again, gains were apparent only after two years of training, when we found that music students’ neural responses to speech were less compromised by background noise compared to their peers in an ROTC fitness-based program—a training program that, like music, requires discipline and time investment but, unlike music, does not demand the development of subtle sound-to-meaning relationships. After the completion of a third year of training, even more brain changes were evident: music students’ brain responses matured faster and showed enhanced processing of sound details. Both ROTC and music students’ literacy performance improved, but the gains were greater for the music group.

The changing, learning brain

The brain is capable of change, and making music drives these brain changes in positive ways. Due to the overlap of brain circuits dedicated to speech and music, and the distributed network of cognitive, sensorimotor, and reward circuits engaged during music making, music training is a particularly potent driver of brain plasticity that influences the biological processes important for listening, language, and learning.

Previous research has shown that poverty negatively influences brain function, resulting in less efficient, less consistent, and "noisier" sound processing. Music training can help erase this poverty signature. It is equally promising that our lab similarly found that bilingualism appears to counter poverty’s impact in low-SES Spanish-speaking students.

Advocacy Summary

Cost-effective school- and community-based programs offer the potential to stimulate biological changes in neural processes important for academic success. Our hope is that our findings catalyze educators and legislators responsible for policy making to promote the birth and growth of music training programs in mainstream education.




Kraus N, White-Schwoch T (2017) Neurobiology of everyday communication: what have we learned from music? The Neuroscientist. 23(3): 287-298.

Kraus N (2016) Music, hearing, and education: from the lab to the classroom. ENT and Audiology News. 25(4): 94-96.

Kraus N, Strait DL (2015) Emergence of biological markers of musicianship with school-based music instruction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1337: 163-169.


Bonacina S, Krizman J, White-Schwoch T, Kraus N (2018) Clapping in time parallels literacy and calls upon overlapping neural mechanisms in early readers. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1423: 338–348.

Tierney A, Krizman J, Kraus N (2015) Music training alters the course of adolescent auditory developmentProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 112(32): 10062-10067.

Kraus N, Slater J, Thompson E, Hornickel J, Strait D, Nicol T and White-Schwoch T (2014) Music enrichment programs improve the neural encoding of speech in at-risk children. Journal of Neuroscience. 34(36): 11913-11918.

Slater J, Skoe E, Strait D, O'Connell S, Thompson E, Kraus N (2015) Music training improves speech-in-noise perception: Longitudinal evidence from a community-based music programBehavioural Brain Research. 291: 244-252.

Slater J, Strait DL, Skoe E, O’Connell S, Thompson E, Kraus N (2014) Longitudinal effects of group music instruction on literacy skills in low-income children. PLoS One. 9(11).

Kraus N, Slater J, Thompson E, Hornickel J, Strait DL, Nicol T, White-Schwoch T (2014) Auditory learning through active engagement with sound: Biological impact of community music lessons in at-risk children. Frontiers in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience. 8(351).

Kraus N, Hornickel J, Strait DL, Slater J, Thompson EC (2014) Engagement in community music classes sparks neuroplasticity and language development in children from disadvantaged backgroundsFrontiers in Psychology, Cognitive Science. 5(1403).

Tierney A, Krizman J, Skoe E, Johnston K, Kraus N (2013) High school music classes enhance the neural processing of speech. Frontiers in Educational Psychology. 4:855.

Slater J, Tierney A, Kraus N (2013) At-risk elementary school children with one year of classroom music instruction are better at keeping a beat. PLoS One. 8(10): e77250.


Krizman J, Skoe E, Kraus N (2016) Bilingual enhancements have no socioeconomic boundaries. Developmental Science. 19(6): 881–891.

Skoe E, Krizman J, Kraus N (2013) The impoverished brain: Disparities in maternal education affect the neural response to sound. Journal of Neuroscience. 33(44):17221-17231.

For additional information, visit the Music, Neuroeducation, and Bilingualism pages.