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 an organization that provides free music lessons to low-income students from gang-ridden neighborhoods has noticed a hopeful sign. The kids were graduating high school and heading off to some big universities.

That's when Margaret Martin asked how the children in the Harmony Project in Los Angeles 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. Overall, 50 percent or more from those same neighborhoods did not graduate.

A two-year study of 44 children in the program shows that the training changes the brain. It makes it easier for youngsters to process sounds, according to results reported in 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 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. They say music is frequently the first cut for school boards looking to save money.

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.

So Margaret Martin approached the National Institutes of Health. She wanted 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. She 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. That hopefully ensured that 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. Playing music, she said, 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."

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COMMENTS (289)
  • chloeh-Stu
    9/05/2014 - 08:56 a.m.

    This paragraph shows that playing a musical increment helps brain devilment Just like a sport will to. This paragraph is intresting cause to think really the little things to do to develop our brain.

  • Savannah989
    9/05/2014 - 10:54 a.m.

    Knowing that playing an instrument can make someone smarter is amazing! I love music even more now! My parents are trying to enroll me in a music program with my sister. So, if I'm there for about two years, I might improve my knowledge.

  • saman123saman
    9/05/2014 - 10:57 a.m.

    Yes i think music can make you smarter because i watched a TV show and this girl made a song when she was studying for her social studies quiz and then the next day when she went to her school she took the quiz and in her head she was singing it and she got her answers all right and her teacher was proud of her.
    So yeah i think music dies make you smarter !

  • Michelle7213
    9/05/2014 - 10:59 a.m.

    This program is great. I'm happy to know that these kids can graduate their high schools and take place in college. I think that there should be another school so that kids with a hope for change don't have to wait for another 10-20 students to graduate.

  • nyuanm-Ros
    9/05/2014 - 01:46 p.m.

    I think music does make you smarter because it helps you with hand movements.ALSO IT HELPS WITH YOUR MIND BECAUSE IT MAKES YOU RECOGNIZE MORE THINGS

  • Eugene0808-YYCA
    9/05/2014 - 08:59 p.m.

    I think the Harmony Project is a good program because the people working in the program, teaches kids to become more smart through music. They should keep up the good work because one day they might change the world with better education. They could even travel to Africa to give free music lessons to the poor children living there or go do the same in the Philippines. I think the children's parents would be very thankful when they see the improved grades their children. If this keeps up, then they would be very successful. Even if children do not want to be musicians when they grow up, they could still get good grades which is beneficial to them for college.

  • paigeb-Koc
    9/07/2014 - 07:27 p.m.

    I think this article was interesting. I already knew that listening to classical music makes you smarter, but it is interesting that learning to play an instrument does too.

  • raymondp-Koc
    9/07/2014 - 07:42 p.m.

    I think its awesome that children in the harmony project learn to play a instrument and get smarter. its a amazing opportunity to be able to go to a top rank college just by playing a instrument.

  • alisonm-Koc
    9/07/2014 - 11:14 p.m.

    I personally am a huge music lover and i play quite a few instruments so i would like to believe that children who play instruments are smarter and it most cases it seems that way

  • dallass-Koc
    9/08/2014 - 02:26 a.m.

    I think this is true. It triggers many parts of the brain all at once. It helps in math because of the counts, reading to read the notes, your ears are training to hear what the right notes are as well as your fingers, etc.

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