Why Music?

How music alters the teenage brain

Music training, begun as late as high school, may help improve the teenage brain’s responses to sound and sharpen hearing and language skills, suggests a new Northwestern University study.

The research, to be published the week of July 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ( PNAS), indicates that music instruction helps enhance skills that are critical for academic success.

The gains were seen during group music classes included in the schools’ curriculum, suggesting in-school training accelerates neurodevelopment.

“While music programs are often the first to be cut when the school budget is tight, these results highlight music’s place in the high school curriculum,” said Nina Kraus, senior study author and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the School of Communication.

“Although learning to play music does not teach skills that seem directly relevant to most careers, the results suggest that music may engender what educators refer to as ‘learning to learn,'” Kraus added.

Kraus and colleagues recruited 40 Chicago-area high school freshmen in a study that began shortly before school started. They followed these children longitudinally until their senior year.

Nearly half the students had enrolled in band classes, which involved two to three hours a week of instrumental group music instruction in school. The rest had enrolled in junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), which emphasized fitness exercises during a comparable period. Both groups attended the same schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Electrode recordings at the start of the study and three years later revealed that the music group showed more rapid maturation in the brain’s response to sound. Moreover, they demonstrated prolonged heightened brain sensitivity to sound details.

All participants improved in language skills tied to sound-structure awareness, but the improvement was greater for those in music classes, with the ROTC group.

According to the authors, high school music training—increasingly disfavored due to funding shortfalls—might hone brain development and improve language skills.

The stable processing of sound details, important for language skills, is known to be diminished in children raised in poverty, raising the possibility that music education may offset this negative influence on sound processing.

“Our results support the notion that the adolescent brain remains receptive to training, underscoring the importance of enrichment during the teenage years,” the authors wrote.

I am a musical snob! [read on...I promise it's not as bad as it sounds!]

by Scott Lang - May 9, 2014

I am a music education snob! My years as an ensemble conductor have afforded me some incredible opportunities and provided me with more than my fare share of aesthetic moments. In lay man’s terms, let’s just say that because of music, my life has not lacked for goose bump moments or life changing experiences. My cup runneth over!

Last night, as an act of penance, I attended my first beginning band concert in over 10 years. A couple of the neighborhood kids have joined band and as a show of support, I promised them I would go hear them play. I use the term “hear" loosely, because after all, how good could they be?

Prepared for an assault on my delicate aesthetic sensibilities, I hunkered down and prepared for the worst, but I was not prepared for this!

As the kids played, my mind played tricks on me as my ears and eyes fought to process information and reconcile the differences between them. What I witnessed was different than what I heard. What I saw, was different from was was played. My ears heard elementary tone and simple rhythms, but my eyes saw advanced learning from incredible minds. Think about it... fifth graders, in just a few short months, these kids had learned to:

  • read, write and perform in a foreign language
  • synchronizing what they see what what they do (tactile-kinesthetic)
  • subdivide time and it's relationship to space
  • use their non-dominant body parts in new ways
  • breathe in a more healthy way
  • work beyond the traditional school day
These are skills that will serve them forever, both in an out an ensemble setting. These are skills that will make them better, parents, employees and leaders.

Even after twenty-plus years in the profession, I was not fully prepared for the experience of 60 beginning musicians playing all at once. Not because I didn't know what to listen FOR, but because I had forgotten what I was look AT… students growing in ways that no other curricula can provide.

I am no longer a musical snob. I vow to throw away my recordings, tear the patches of my jacket sleeves and cancel my symphony season tickets. Summer band is coming and my neighbors might want me to go that concert as well. If they ask, I will gladly attend, because, now I know what looking at, so I know what I am listening for!

Not by geeks alone

by Chester E. Finn and Diane Ravitch - August 8, 2007
In a globalizing economy, America's competitive edge depends in large measure on how well our schools prepare tomorrow's workforce.
And notwithstanding the fact that Congress and the White House are now controlled by opposing parties, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are bent on devising new programs and boosting education spending.
Consider the measure--the America Competes Act--that recently passed Congress and is on its way to the president's desk. The bill will substantially increase government funding for science, technology, engineering, and math ("STEM" subjects). President Bush, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid support this initiative. Nearly all of the 2008 presidential candidates endorse its goals. And 38 state legislatures have also recently enacted STEM bills. The buzz is as constant as summer cicadas.
Indeed, STEM has swiftly emerged as the hottest education topic since No Child Left Behind. They're related, too. NCLB puts a premium on reading and math skills and also pays some attention to science. Marry it with STEM and you get heavy emphasis on a particular suite of skills.
But there is a problem here. Worthy though these skills are, they ignore at least half of what has long been regarded as a "well rounded" education in Western civilization: literature, art, music, history, civics, and geography. Indeed, a new study from the Center on Education Policy says that, since NCLB's enactment, nearly half of U.S. school districts have reduced the time their students spend on subjects such as art and music.
This is a mistake that will ill-serve our children while misconstruing the true nature of American competitiveness and the challenges we face in the 21st century.
As with all education reforms, the STEM-winders mean well. They reason that India and China will eat America's lunch unless we boost our young people's prowess in the STEM fields. But these enthusiasts don't understand that what makes Americans competitive on a shrinking, globalizing planet isn't out-gunning Asians at technical skills. Rather, it's our people's creativity, versatility, imagination, restlessness, energy, ambition, and problem-solving prowess.
True success over the long haul--economic success, civic success, cultural success, domestic success, national defense success--depends on a broadly educated populace with flowers and leaves as well as stems. That's what equips us to invent and imagine and grow one business line into another. It's also how we acquire qualities and abilities that aren't easily "outsourced" to Guangzhou or Hyderabad.
Students who garner high-tech skills may still get undercut by people halfway around the world who are willing to do the same work for one-fifth of the salary. The surest way to compete is to offer something the Chinese and Indians (and Vietnamese, Singaporeans, etc.) cannot--technical skills are not enough.
Apple's iPod was not just an engineering improvement on Sony's Walkman. It emerged from Steve Jobs's American-style understanding of people's lifestyles, needs, tastes and capacities. (Yes, Mr. Jobs dropped out of college--but went on to study philosophy and foreign cultures.)
Pragmatic folks naturally seek direct links from skill to result, such as engineers using their technical knowledge to keep planes aloft and bridges from buckling. But what about Abraham Lincoln educating himself via Shakespeare, the Bible and other great literary works? Alan Greenspan's degrees are in economics but he plays a mean jazz saxophone. Indeed, many of today's foremost (and wealthiest) entrepreneurs, people like Warren Buffett, studied economics--not a STEM subject--in college. Adam Smith studied moral philosophy.
The liberal arts make us "competitive" in the ways that matter most. They make us wise, thoughtful and appropriately humble. They help our humanity shine!

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