Bioethics Blogs

Sound Advice: High School Music Training Sharpens Language Skills

When children enter the first grade, their brains are primed for learning experiences, significantly more so, in fact, than adult brains. For instance, scientists have documented that musical training during grade school produces a signature set of benefits for the brain and for behavior—benefits that can last a lifetime, whether or not people continue to play music.

Now, researchers at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, have some good news for teenagers who missed out on learning to play musical instruments as young kids. Even when musical training isn’t started until high school, it produces meaningful changes in how the brain processes sound. And those changes have positive benefits not only for a teen’s musical abilities, but also for skills related to reading and writing.

To test the influence of musical training on the teenage brain, NIH-funded researchers, led by Nina Kraus, recruited 40 rising high school freshmen shortly before the school year started. As described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [1], the students—none of whom had previous musical training—attended public schools in low-income neighborhoods in the Chicago area.

Half of the students chose to enroll in a high school band class, involving two to three hours per week of group instruction in instrumental music. The other half opted for a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program that focused on physical fitness.

The researchers tested the students’ neural responses to sound and their language skills, initially before they received musical or fitness training and then again in the summer preceding their senior year.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.