For us at The Think Tank, neuroplasticity – the concept that pathways in the brain grow stronger with practice – is central to our educational mission. When we hit the streets and sidewalks of Chicago with our “Wacky Beanbag Toss” demonstration (Check out a neat video here!), we are showing participants that their brains can rapidly learn to adapt to a new situation, like seeing the world through funny prism goggles. Every time we enter a classroom, our “Pump Up Your Brain” lesson helps high school students realize that they are in control of their brains, and ultimately, their own learning processes.
Although these initiatives have produced incredible results, we always like to highlight programs that are promoting the power of neuroplasticity in other fascinating ways. The Harmony Project is a nationally-recognized arts education program in Los Angeles, CA that is dedicated to using instrumental music as a vehicle for child development and social change in underserved communities. With their widespread impact – reaching over 2,000 students in the LA area in 2016 – and evidence-based model, The Harmony Project caught the attention of Nina Kraus and her colleagues at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab.
In their 2014 study, Kraus and colleagues worked with Harmony Project staff and 26 of their elementary school students over two years to explore how music education affected neuroplasticity and language development among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their work built on prior research demonstrating these children are often subjected to an excessive amount of auditory noise, while they are simultaneously exposed to fewer words and less complex language during the early stages of development compared to other children. Specifically, these conditions contribute to a vocabulary gap of around 30 million words between children with lower socioeconomic status and their more advantaged peers by the age of four.
As the researchers followed the Harmony Project students through classes on music appreciation and instrument lessons, they found that students who were highly engaged (i.e., high participation and attendance rates) in the Project reaped considerable brain-based benefits for language development, compared to their peers who were less engaged in the Project. When Kraus and colleagues measured students’ brain activity while they listened to a recorded speech syllable, they found that – thanks to neuroplasticity - the students who were more engaged during The Harmony Project had stronger speech-processing pathways in their brains. As a result of their musical training, engaged students could more easily identify subtle acoustic distinctions that are common to both music and spoken language. Furthermore, the researchers found that the students who were more active participants in their Harmony Project classes were more likely to become better readers over the two-year study period compared to their less-engaged peers.
Overall, Kraus and colleagues demonstrated the power of music education for language development among disadvantaged students. Although the results are impressive, the importance of classroom engagement for promoting these benefits cannot be overemphasized. That said, as long as students stay engaged, the power of music to promote academic achievement through neuroplasticity is tremendous.
Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. (2015). Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. Retrieved from http://www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu
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Kraus, N., Hornickel, J., Strait, D. L., Slater, J., & Thompson, E. (2014). Engagement in community music classes sparks neuroplasticity and language development in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-9.
The Harmony Project. (2015). Harmony Project. Retrieved from http://www.harmony-project.org
Thirty Million Words. (2015). TMW Initiative. Retrieved from http://thirtymillionwords.org/tmw-initiative/
Turner, C. (2014). This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain on Music. All Things Considered. Washington, D.C.: NPR.
UChicago Creative. (2015). The Illuminoggin Unveiled at Brain Awareness Day. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago.