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?
Lexile: 1250L

Assign to Google Classroom

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?

Source URL:

Filed Under:  
Assigned 107 times

  • ryanb-Koc
    9/15/2014 - 12:30 a.m.

    I find this study interesting quite a few ways, I like there results honestly it seems pretty positive in helping concentration and memory. I believe this is a step in the right direction but at the same time it is not full proot there are people who will experience nothing from this music related study, mostly because the variations of music colliding with the interest in the subject. If the person doesn't have some sort of appeal to the music the music might just have no affect in the slightest.

  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    9/15/2014 - 02:31 p.m.

    I find it highly unique that teens do better in classes and school when they listen to music. This completely baffles me because I am not at all an audible learned, and music really distracts me when I am learning.

  • ksewell-Cla
    9/16/2014 - 12:05 p.m.

    Music is a thing that most people need in their life to get around in life. Music is a very helpful thing in life it really helps.

  • SH2000Lovie
    9/23/2014 - 08:46 a.m.

    You need to play an instrument to get the benefits because you can't just listen to the music and hope to play it, you actually have to listen to the beats of the music rather then listening to the actual song, listen to the instrumental.

  • ValerieF-Bri
    9/24/2014 - 03:05 p.m.

    I found this to be quite interesting as well; the fact that two years of musical training could make such a difference is astounding. This program helped the kids in more ways than just getting them education- it actually helped them graduate and get out of those dangerous areas. The scientific implications of these results could change the way people deal with education.

  • RileyE-Bri
    9/24/2014 - 04:21 p.m.

    That may be true but I also think that you don't need to play an instrument to feel the beat. A DJ would be a good example.

  • CesarA-Bri
    9/24/2014 - 04:29 p.m.

    Well isn't just gang member are into this, but as well other student. It you can see the effect happen better if the student had an instruments that they played, but the change can been seen two years.

  • Haliele-Fre
    9/29/2014 - 01:15 p.m.

    I think it is cool that instruments may help in categories other than music. I have also noticed that playing an instrument helps because ever since I joined band to play the flute, I have been slightly more responsible. Also, I believe that it is really cool that Adelina was able to get math help by joining band.

  • Kaileym-Lam
    9/30/2014 - 10:36 a.m.

    I think that playing an instrument really does make you smarter. Playing an instrument helps you to sight read and stay focused, since you have to have a lot of concentration to play an instrument. Also, playing an instrument helps you to become more confident and it teaches kids that they have to practice something if they want to be good at it.

  • Brennand-Lam
    9/30/2014 - 10:37 a.m.

    I do not think that music helps the brain. It might but the article says that it takes two years for the brain to develop and I took two years of band and I don't think I improved at all in school. This is just one person and lots of others probably have different opinions to this and that it has improved their grades in school so it might depend on how the brain has developed before they started to play music.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment