Music Offers a Boost to Education in Low-SES Environments

by Kayt SukelDecember 2, 2013

Socioeconomic status (SES), the standardized measure of a person’s social and economic standing as it relates to others, has long been correlated with cognitive and educational outcomes. A child raised in a lower SES household is more likely to show more diminished abilities in language, memory, and cognitive development than his or her higher-SES peers. For decades, educators have looked for different interventions that might offset this disadvantage-including music programs. Now, researchers at Northwestern University have demonstrated that just two years of musical training in high school may offer some assistance.

Enrichment and deprivation

According to educators, your mother’s educational level matters. In the 1960s, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, from the University of Kansas and the University of Alaska, respectively, made headlines when they published the so-called «Thirty Million Word Gap» study. The duo found an extreme disparity between the number of words spoken in higher- versus lower-income homes. They argued that children in higher SES homes were being exposed to 30 million more words than their poorer peers-and that disparity had significant impact on language and vocabulary development over time. Often, homes with the fewest spoken words belong to mothers with little to no formal education.

But educators have observed that even students with poorly educated mothers still get some kind of boost from music education. Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory  at Northwestern University, says that schools with music programs have noticed a big difference between the kids who play music and those who don’t.

«The teachers who work with these kids see it’s the ones in music that are rising,» she says. «They are the ones that are staying in school when so many of their peers are dropping out. They are doing better in other subjects, like reading and math. They tend to have better academic skills overall. Their attention skills are good. Their memory skills are good. They seem to have a real advantage.»

Many music programs are threatened with cuts to balance school budgets, though, and anecdotes and observations are not proving to be enough to keep them funded. Kraus says teachers are looking for iron-clad biological evidence to support what they’ve known for a while:  Music can offset the cognitive deficits that often go hand-in-hand with a low SES ranking.

Making changes to the brain

To test the theory that music does make a difference, Kraus and colleagues recruited low-SES students at a Chicago high school. Half the group was placed in a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Course (JROTC), which focuses on leadership and fitness-based training. The other group was placed into a music training program that focused on sight reading, singing and playing technique, and performance. The groups were matched on characteristics such as reading ability, IQ, and neural timing (the speed that nerves activate).

Before the training programs started, the researchers measured the subcortical encoding of speech by recording electrical activity in the auditory brainstem as the students listened to a synthesized speech syllable presented in background noise. There was no significant difference between the two groups at the start. After two years of music, training, however, the students who’d had music training showed faster subcortical responses to the speech-in-noise stimulus. The faster, more precise neural encoding underlies important language skills like reading and hearing speech in noisy situations.The students in the JROTC program showed no significant change. The results were published on Oct. 28, 2013, in Frontiers in Educational Psychology.

Benjamin Rich Zendel, a neuroscientist who studies music and the brain at the University of Montreal, says he is not surprised that Kraus’ group found an effect, even after so little training. «As more studies come out, it doesn’t seem that musical expertise is required to get an effect. It seems the benefits can happen in a fairly short training period of time and that’s a really good thing,» he says. «Just a little bit of music training can have positive benefits on your underlying neurophysiology and cognitive skills.»

The importance of music education

Music stimulates the brain, not only helping in the classroom, but can also assist patients as they recover from stroke and brain injury, says Gottfried Schlaug, director of Music and Neuroimaging at the Stroke Recovery Laboratory at Harvard Medical School. «Making music is not just an auditory experience. It is a multisensory and motor experience. It is a powerful stimulant.» Recent studies have also shown that music training is linked to better sensory integration as well as enhanced auditory cognition across the lifespan. As more studies are published, it’s clear that musical training has significant neurobiological reach.

And that’s why, Kraus argues, public schools need to put more emphasis on music education. She says this new study offers strong evidence that in-school music education can result in an enhanced cognitive skill even in kids with a low SES disadvantage-in this case, speech encoding. And, unlike other studies that suggest you need to start in elementary school in order to reap the benefits of music, her group found an effect in high schoolers after a very short period of time.

«Music education is important. We were able to see objective, biological changes after two years of instruction,» she says. «Music is not about creating professional violinists. Policy makers need to stop thinking like that. Music appears to be a fundamental part of education that has a lasting impact on the brain. And schools should be treating it that way instead of cutting these important music programs.»

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