Does music make you smarter?
Does music make you smarter? Alexis Rodolico plays the violin in a bunny suit during Easter celebrations in New York (Reuters)
Does music make you smarter?
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The founder of a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides free music lessons to low-income students from gang-ridden neighborhoods began to notice several years ago a hopeful sign. The kids were graduating high school and heading off to UCLA, Tulane and other big universities.

That's when Margaret Martin asked how the children in the Harmony Project were beating the odds.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois believe that the students' music training played a role in their educational achievement. Martin noticed 90 percent of them graduate from high school while 50 percent or more didn't from those same neighborhoods.

A two-year study of 44 children in the program shows that the training changes the brain in ways that make it easier for youngsters to process sounds, according to results reported in Tuesday's edition of The Journal of Neuroscience. That increased ability, the researchers say, is linked directly to improved skills in such subjects as reading and speech.

But, there is one catch. People have to actually play an instrument to get smarter. They can't just crank up the tunes on their iPod.

Nina Kraus, the study's lead researcher and director of Northwestern's auditory neuroscience laboratory, compared the difference to that of building up one's body through exercise. "I like to say to people: You're not going to get physically fit just watching sports," she said.

The latest findings are striking a chord with supporters of such programs who say music is frequently the first cut for school boards looking to save money.

"Over and over, we've learned that children need rich, multisensory environments, and learning music sort of brings all of that into a package for them," said Mary Luehrsen of the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation. It awards scholarships and research grants for the study of music, adding that the results make the point that music training should be an important part of all school curriculums.

April Benasich, a professor of neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Jersey who was not involved in the study, said previous research by Kraus has demonstrated the value of music is improving concentration, memory and focus in children.

Martin approached the National Institutes of Health, seeking to learn if there was a connection between music and the educational achievements of the program's 2,000 students. The NIH put her in touch with Kraus, who studies the changes in the brain that occur through auditory exposure. Many of Harmony Project's students have no interest in pursuing professional music careers, Martin said.

Ricardo Torriz, 13, wants to be an engineer. He took up the trumpet and is learning salsa, jazz and classical music. "I wanted to take up the trumpet so I could play in a band like my dad," he said.

Researchers studied the students over two years, attaching scalp electrodes to monitor changes in their brains. Test subjects were selected at random from those on a waiting list to enter the program, hopefully ensuring all test subjects would be equally motivated to work hard.

One of the researchers' key findings was that one year of musical training didn't make a difference in brain changes. Two years did.

At the Harmony Project one afternoon last week, the building quickly began to fill with sounds of clarinets, trombones, oboes and other wind instruments as players warmed up. At an adjacent building, cellos were being tuned.

Adelina Flores, whose 11-year-old daughter, America, was a test subject, said she wasn't surprised by the results. Her daughter had already told her she was getting better at math because playing music had taught her to divide notes into fractions and count them out in measures.

"She's improved a lot through this," Adelina Flores said, adding, "And she's grown to be more confident, too."

Critical thinking challenge: Why do you need to play an instrument to get the benefits? What is the difference between playing music and listening to it?

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  • Damikus123
    9/05/2014 - 09:06 a.m.

    Music does make you smarter because the more you read the better you understand the music, which could persuade you to want to write music, a book, or even poems. Listing to music also helps you concentrate on what ever your doing.

  • BDaniel-Cas
    9/06/2014 - 11:49 p.m.

    I actually do agree with this. I believe that we shouldn't get rid of the program, but add more to the curriculum. But if that's not gonna happen then they should create more performing art specific schools.

  • thanhn-Koc
    9/07/2014 - 07:57 p.m.

    I'm really surprised that playing an instrument can actually make people smarter. This article inspires me to start learning how to play the ocarina, which I had stored in my box for a year.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    9/07/2014 - 09:00 p.m.

    Playing music truly does make you smarter. Whenever I used to play the piano, trumpet, and drums I found school a whole lot more effortless. Even though I was elementary school, I understood things much easier than I had before I had started an instrument.

  • sebastianl-Koc
    9/07/2014 - 09:39 p.m.

    I liked this article and, I was interested in the information that was given about how playing music helps your educational pursuits. But also on the other hand music isn't the only thing the student needs it all depends on the focus and, dedication of the student. The article was great and, I do believe it was appropriately accurate because I am a musician but, I will not say that my intellect is more advanced then a student that dedicates many hours to their studies. You need to play an instrument to gain the benefits because you are learning mathematics and, feeling more accomplished for learning something new and unique. The difference between playing music and, listening to it is that playing it requires you to put your mind to it and, on the other hand listening to music is good as well but, you do not need a mental effort.

  • mattf-Koc
    9/08/2014 - 02:37 a.m.

    It is amazing that playing an instrument can make you smarter. The best part is just how much the graduation rate in some schools has improved when students play an instrument in comparison to those who do not. I think its about time i learned some guitar.

  • ad2000softball
    9/08/2014 - 08:52 a.m.

    You need to play an instrument to get the benefits because when you are playing the music, you have to try to memorize the music, and be able to know the notes and that effects the brain and helps make it stronger. The difference between listening to music and playing it is that when you are listening, you don't really have to do anything. All you really have to do is just listen to it and maybe memorize the words if you want and that doesn't really help the brain to much, but when you play the music, there's a lot of things that you need to be able to do and all the things that you need to do, help the brain.

  • RM00charlie
    9/08/2014 - 01:15 p.m.

    in the story it used and example saying "you don't get athletic by watching a sport on tv" you need to physically play the sport . so you cant just listen to music and get smarter u need to physically play it .
    The difference between playing music and listening to music is that with one u are physically touching and using movement while for the other you are just using your ears to listen

  • claudiamercadob1
    9/09/2014 - 12:18 p.m.

    In spite of some of the scientists comments, I really believe that music make you smarter.IT is because of many reasons.One of them can be that when you play an instrument you acquire discipline immediately .As consequence,you will use and make it part of your life .So,in this case, it is really significant for student life .In addition, playing an instrument improve your concentration and memory automatically, as the report said.That is so real, because if you do not concentrate when playing it, you cannot simply play it. Moreover, playing an instrument, help you to develop your personality and personal confidence since , most of the time, you have to play your instrument in front of somebody else, what push you to face your fears.
    So, as a consequence, playing an instrument, will always give you methods, and ways to be smarter.

  • Kaitlynpo-Fre
    9/09/2014 - 01:10 p.m.

    I think it's awesome that there are studies about music's effects on people. When schools have budget cuts, the first thing they normally do is cut the music program. I've noticed that since starting learning guitar about 2 1/2 years ago and piano about a year ago, it's become way easier to focus for long periods of time. Also, music is a really important thing to a lot of people, so when it's normally classified as 'not important' it doesn't exactly feel the best. I think this article is just proving that wrong.

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