Music lessons make at-risk kids smarter

Samuel Coleridge Taylor and violinTwo years of music lessons improves brain development for at-risk kids. That’s what Northwestern University learned in a community music program study. Nina Kraus, director of the university’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab, and her team collaborated on the study of the Harmony Project. For more than a decade, Harmony Project has provided free music instruction to thousands of children from gang-reduction zones in Los Angeles. Children between the ages of 6 and 9 participated in the study. The key is that the children must actively engage in music making.

Although the results were published two years ago, I only learned of it recently. And this isn’t the first study to find a link. A 2004 study by E. Glenn Schellenberg at the University of Toronto at Mississauga found a small increase in the IQs of six-year-olds who were given weekly voice and piano lessons. Another study by Ellen Winner of Boston College and Gottfried Schlaug of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School found changes in the brain images of children after 15 months of weekly music instruction and practice.

Kraus and her team found that music lessons improved children’s ear for speech. This helped kids learn language more quickly, which in turn boosted reading skills. So music lessons can give low-income kids the extra lift they need to put them on the path to academic success. We know that if kids can’t read at grade level by third grade, their chances of catching up grow more and more dismal. The question is, are we willing to invest in music?


  1. Not necessarily. Private lessons are typically more expensive than lessons in a group setting because one individual is responsible for the cost rather than sharing the cost among a group. It also may be more difficult to subsidize the cost of private lessons, which means that kids from low-income families might not have equitable access to music lessons that are available to their wealthier peers. Personally, I think ALL kids should have regular music lessons, whether they are in public or private schools. There is clearly an advantage for brain development.

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