Neuroeducation: From the lab to the classroom
Making music matters
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 schoolersWe 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.
The arts, education, and social policy
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.
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Tierney A, Krizman J, Kraus N (2015) Music training alters the course of adolescent auditory development. Proceedings 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 program. Behavioural 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 backgrounds. Frontiers 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 (2015) Bilingual enhancements have no socioeconomic boundaries. Developmental Science. doi: 10.1111/desc.12347.
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.