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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  • Annalissele-Fre
    9/09/2014 - 01:14 p.m.

    This is actually really cool, I didn't know that playing an instrument could make you smarter. I can play many different instruments. I think that you only get the benefits if you actually play the instrument because you're doing the work, your making the music, not the band you're listening to. When you play an instrument, it takes a lot of focus, patience, and hard work. When you're listening to a song, all you're doing is listening to lyrics.

  • Adamho-Fre
    9/09/2014 - 01:17 p.m.

    I believe that listening to and playing instruments are mot the same. First of all, listening to music just requires you to be awake. You could just lay in your bed or on the couch, while playing an instrument requires you to breathe,move, and most importantly, think! You have to remember which notes are which, and how to play those exact notes in this exact order. I play the trumpet, and I have to remember how tight I have to keep my lips. The higher the note, the tighter my lips have to go.

  • rafaels-Koc
    9/09/2014 - 05:56 p.m.

    Music can do wonders for people. It helps people learn, feel. Music can also be used as an escape from depression and anxiety. I play the guitar and for me it's just fun to play and makes me feel good.

  • MDesmond-Cas
    9/10/2014 - 09:57 p.m.

    I believe the main difference between playing an instrument and listening to music is that when playing an instrument, you must listen very carefully and attentively to play correctly. When listening to music you can get lost and stare off into space, thinking about nothing. But in order to play an instrument correctly you must listen to every single note you play, and that is why playing an instrument could benefit all students. It strengthens listening skills and teaches you how to focus your attention on one thing.

  • angellovee
    9/12/2014 - 10:42 a.m.

    In my own opinion I think music would make someone smart even if they didn't get the education they wanted to have when they went to school. And being in a music school or college is a real good thing not only for there love and passion for it but for there own purpose of using that knowledge for something they could do with that in the future like for example when they are wanting to be a music teacher or in a band or be famous and make millions and so and so they could use all that knowledge like singing and instrumental usage and maybe teach there children how to become good musical artist so in my opinion yes it could because you don't know what the mind is capable of doing until u figure out what it is able to do when u try something u really enjoy.

  • mikaylawa-Mil
    9/12/2014 - 01:53 p.m.

    Wow, this article was just astonishing. I think music is a really great way to keep your mind active. There are so many benefits to music. I already knew that when you learn to play an instrument it teaches your mind a new way of learning, but I didn't know that it actually made you smarter, and learning to play an instrument is so easy! I think that it's really good The Harmony Project does this for low-income kids. I'm so glad I read this article, so amazing.

  • natewa-Mil
    9/12/2014 - 01:55 p.m.

    This article is telling us that play an instrument may help you with your other classes . I believe that is is true. Being someone who plays an instrument I believe it has been a major help in my studies. Learning how to count, stay with the beat, and learn how to play notes on an instrument not only is fun, but for it to benefit you in other ways! I loved this article!

  • tessal-Mil
    9/12/2014 - 03:34 p.m.

    I think that it is interesting that learning and playing music can help you learn. Personally I believe instruments can help you think about patterns and counting out numbers, which can help you a lot in math. Personally I think that everyone should play an instrument at some point in time, but it is really sad that not a lot of kids do. In my class kids are quitting band because they need another study hall, so I think that kids should get extra study halls so they can rejoin band. I really believe that playing can help you learn because it makes you use both hands at once.

  • BMegan-Cas
    9/12/2014 - 03:37 p.m.

    The difference between playing music and listening to it is needing more focus. To play an instrument, you need to focus your attention on how much air you need to blow in for a wind instrument. For percussion, it's the way you hit or hold the instrument you are playing. You also have to keep your attention on timing, as well as learn the notes that you will need to play. When you listen to music, you can do other things and don't need to focus your attention as much as you would if you were playing an instrument.

  • MPhilip-Cas
    9/12/2014 - 03:39 p.m.

    What I think personally is music does make you smarter. Music can help you with various things such as math or help you with your English. It can grow confidence in you or it can have you have less stressed if you are stressed. Music can also help you better understand certain things. Music can also keep you on task. This is why I think music can make you smarter.

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