Teachers have long observed the effect that music education can have on students, but recent research is showing just how integral learning a musical instrument is to a child’s development. Using the most advanced brain analysis technology, Dr. Nina Kraus from Northwestern University has been able to show precisely what happens to “the brain on music.”

Music and language have a special relationship that Kraus and her team are only beginning to understand. In the study, which appears online in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, the team showed that exposure to music lessons physically stimulated the brain and changed it for the better. However, simply being exposed to music education doesn’t seem to be sufficient, you have to also be actively involved.

The Harmony Project, which provides after school music education programs in underserved communities, allowed Kraus and her team to study the brains of some of their students to gain data for their study. It was important to use underprivileged students in their research because these children generally have lower language skills. This is because growing up in a disadvantaged environment has been linked to noisier settings, linguistic deprivation, and not hearing as much complex words, sentences, and concepts, Kraus explained in a press release. These factors may cause the areas of the brain related to language to become weaker.  

The team looked at the neural differences of the children participating in the Harmony Project by using electrode wires with button sensors to capture the brain’s responses. Although Kraus’s past research has shown the music education caused greater gains in speech processing, and thus reading, in her current project Kraus realized the type of music education offered also influenced how great these gains would be. For example, children who learned how to play a musical instrument showed stronger language skills than children who took music appreciation courses.

“Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement — attendance and class participation — predicted the strength of neural processing after music training," Kraus said.

The team witnessed how music education helped the children to better distinguish between similar speech sounds.

"Speech processing efficiency is closely linked to reading, since reading requires the ability to segment speech strings into individual sound units," Kraus said. "A poor reader's brain often processes speech suboptimally."

Those involved in the Harmony Project didn’t need Kraus to tell them how much music can improve a child’s academic skills. According to the press release, although the project works in neighborhoods with an average high school dropout rate of 50 percent, around 90 percent of children who participate in the Harmony Project go on to college.

Although the results are exciting, Kraus cautions that music education “isn’t a quick fix.” Her research shows that the child must show dedication to his studies. Fortunately, according to the testimony of the project’s students, studying music is far more of a pleasure than a chore.

Correction: The original link to The Harmony Project in this story sent you to the website for The Harmony Program, an organizatoin that do not take part in the study.