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Music Helps Children Perform Better in School


Researchers have found that the brains of children who grow up in poverty interpret sounds differently from other children. But an American study shows how musical training can affect the brain so that poor children might be able to better process what they hear. It finds such training could help them improve language and other skills.

Sixteen-year-old Katrina Reyes fell in love when she saw the trombone.

“I guess it’s the sound and the feel and how it looked. And it was not ordinary for a girl to play trombone.”

Katrina has been attending a free music program in California for the past five years. It is called Harmony Project.

Margaret Martin launched the program more than 10 years ago. Ms. Martin holds a doctoral degree in public health. But she speaks of difficult experiences while growing up. She was pregnant during her teen-age years. And at one time in her life, she was homeless – having no permanent place to live.

Ms. Martin says that at first, the goal of Harmony Project was to help children in poor, often violent neighborhoods stay in school and finish high school. But she was surprised to find many of the music students deciding to continue their education.

“Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU …”

Margaret Martin noted that some of the students sought college degrees in highly technical subjects.

“Neuroscience, pre-med(ical), civil engineering, medical engineering, you know, cultural anthropology. We even have a Fulbright scholar. It didn’t make any sense.”

She began to wonder if music had had some effect on the students. It did not make sense until researchers put sensors on the children’s heads. The researchers measured how the children reacted to sounds, before and after they studied music at Harmony Project.

Nina Kraus is a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Illinois. She is an expert on the brain and nervous system. She led a study of the effects of music. Her findings were published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The research involved boys and girls between the ages of six to nine years. All of the children were taking music lessons. They were studied over a two-year period. Then they were re-studied at intervals for another two years. Professor Kraus says she found that poor children process sound differently from other children.

“We found that the neuro(logical) signature for poverty was that children were processing the details of sounds less precisely.”

But when a child started music training, something changed after two years.

“So we were able to determine that the children who took part in music lessons had nervous systems that responded to speech sounds in a more precise manner.”

She adds that the children who spent most time in music lessons were the children who showed the largest gains. Those who studied music for one year showed no changes in their nervous systems.

Professor Kraus says her study with Harmony Project involved a small number of students.

“We’re really just talking about you know, 100 here, 100 there; these are, these are, relatively small scale studies.”

She says she would like other researchers to extend the study to thousands of students in many areas. Some of the young musicians at Harmony Project are like Ivan Ignacio Arce. He says they are living proof that music helps children improve in school.

“After, like, the Harmony Project, I get a new understanding, going to class, participating, having an open mind, discussions, talking to my teacher.”

Katrina Reyes says she also sees a connection between music and schoolwork.

“Math is kind of easier because of rhythms and all that; it’s easier to count, easier to calculate. Yeah, I have seen some improvements (with music.)”

But for Katrina Reyes and other students, they are not playing only to do better in school. They play music because of the love of their instruments and the friendships formed through music.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

This report was based on a story from VOA reporter Elizabeth Lee in Los Angeles. Jeri Watson wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in this Story

interpretv. to understand the meaning of something in a specified way

degreen. a title conferred on students by a college, university or professional school on completion of a program of study

wonderv. to have interest in learning or knowing something

sensorsn. a device that measures or records information

intervaln. a space of time between events

precise adj. exact, accurate, correct

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