American education is in perpetual crisis. Our students are falling ever farther behind their peers in the rest of the world. Learning disabilities have reached epidemic proportions, affecting as many as one in five of our children. Illiteracy costs American businesses $80 billion a year.
Many solutions have been tried, but few have succeeded. So I propose a different approach: music training. A growing body of evidence suggests that music could trump many of the much more expensive “fixes” that we have thrown at the education system.
Plenty of outstanding achievers have attributed at least some of their success to music study. Stanford University’s Thomas Sudhof, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine last year, gave credit to his bassoon teacher. Albert Einstein, who began playing the violin at age 6, said his discovery of the theory of relativity was “the result of musical perception.”
Until recently, though, it has been a chicken-and-egg question: Are smart, ambitious people naturally attracted to music? Or does music make them smart and ambitious? And do musically trained students fare better academically because they tend to come from more affluent, better educated families?
New research provides some intriguing answers. Music is no cure-all, nor is it likely to turn your child into a Nobel Prize winner. But there is compelling evidence that it can boost children’s academic performance and help fix some of our schools’ most intractable problems.
Music raises your IQ.
E. Glenn Schellenberg, a University of Toronto psychology professor, was skeptical about claims that music makes you smarter when he devised a 2004 study to assess its impact on IQ scores. He randomly assigned 132 first-graders to keyboard, singing or drama lessons, or no lessons at all. He figured that at the end of the school year, both music and drama students would show bumps in IQ scores, just because of “that experience of getting them out of the house.” But something unexpected happened. The IQ scores of the music students increased more than those of the other groups.
Another Canadian study, this one of 48 preschoolers and published in 2011, found that verbal IQ increased after only 20 days of music training. In fact, the increase was five times that of a control group of preschoolers, who were given visual art lessons, says lead researcher Sylvain Moreno, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He found that music training enhanced the children’s “executive function”—that is, their brains’ ability to plan, organize, strategize and solve problems. And he found the effect in 90% of the children, an unusually high rate.
Music training can reduce the academic gap between rich and poor districts.
The Harmony Project in Los Angeles gives free instrument lessons to children in impoverished neighborhoods. Margaret Martin, who founded the program in 2001, noticed that the program’s students not only did better in school but also were more likely to graduate and to attend college.
To understand why, Northwestern University neurobiologist Nina Kraus spent two years tracking 44 6-to-9-year-olds in the program and then measured their brain activity. She found a significant increase in the music students’ ability to process sounds, which is key to language, reading and focus in the classroom. Academic results bore that out: While the music students’ reading scores held steady, scores for a control group that didn’t receive lessons declined.
READ THE FULL ARTICLE
Joanne Lipman is a member of the Yale School of Music's Board of Advisors. With Melanie Kupchynsky, she is the co-author of “Strings Attached,” published last month by Hachette Books. She is a former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and former editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Portfolio.