MUSIC, BILINGUALISM, POVERTY AND CONCUSSION IMPACT THE HEARING BRAIN
MUSIC CAN BOOST SOUND AND LANGUAGE PROCESSING IN THE BRAIN
Making music changes the brain, with tangible impact on listening, language, learning, social connection and cognition. Most research has focused on children taking private lessons. Through multiyear partnerships with inner-city schools and community programs, the Kraus Lab tells a new and promising story.
COMMUNITY MUSIC PROGRAMS FOR GRADE SCHOOLERS
We partnered with Harmony Project, a community mentorship program that provides free music instruction to children in Los Angeles gang reduction zones. After two years—but not one—music training sharpened speech processing in the brain to strengthen literacy and listening skills. The more active students (those who played an instrument, compared to those who took music appreciation classes) made greater gains. Moreover, literacy skills declined in the no-music control group (as expected for students from low income families), wheareas music students stayed on track with national norms. Finally, the ability to understand speech in noisy environments 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. Starting music lessons as late as high school still enriched neural processing. Again, gains were apparent only after two years of training. We found that music students’ neural responses to speech were less compromised by background noise compared to their peers in a fitness-based program. Both enrichment programs require discipline and time investment but only music demands the development of sound-to-meaning connections. By the third year of music training, brain responses matured faster and showed enhanced processing of sound details. Literacy performance improved in all children, with largest gains for the music group.
THE CHANGING, LEARNING BRAIN
The brain is inherently changeable. Making music engages the integrated network of cognitive, sensory, motor, and reward circuits. Thus music is a potent driver of brain plasticity, positively influencing the biological processes important for listening, language, and learning.
Cost-effective school- and community-based programs offer the potential to stimulate biological changes 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.
WHAT DISRUPTS OUR ABILITY TO MAKE SENSE OF SOUND?
POVERTY AND LANGUAGE DISORDERS
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.
Poverty negatively influences brain function, resulting in less efficient, less consistent, and “noisier” sound processing. Music training can help erase this poverty signature. Equally promising is our discovery that bilingualism appears to counter poverty’s impact on sound processing in the brain in Spanish-speaking students.
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. Our research shows that concussion can disrupt sound processing in the brain and that processing improves as athletes recover.