music guitarLearning to sing or play a musical instrument can help disadvantaged children improve their reading skills, new US research has suggested.

After a year of music lessons, the reading scores of 9 and 10-year-olds held steady compared to a dip seen in those who were not taught any music while another group of musically-trained children were found to be better at processing sounds and language.

Study lead Dr Nina Kraus from Northwestern University said: "Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn," he explained.

"While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap."
 
Further reading:Grants music to the ears of young people in challenging circumstances

As part of the study, Dr Kraus found that giving children in impoverished areas of Chicago and Los Angeles regular group music lessons for five or more hours a week prevented any decline in reading skills, which would normally be expected in poorer areas.

Researchers recorded their brainwaves to assess how they responded to speech sounds and after two years of musical training, the results showed the musical group was faster and more accurate at distinguishing one sound from another, particularly when there was background noise, compared to a group that did not participate in any musical activity.

Noisier brains
Dr Kraus said this showed music could have a positive impact on the brain, which could also help learning, but it was not a quick fix.

"Music appears to remodel the brain to improve the connections between sounds and meaning, the process by which babies learn to speak. Children growing up in poorer areas with poorly-educated mothers are more likely to have 'noisier brains", she added.

"This is because they are less likely to know and recognise a wide range of words and are therefore less able to respond to sounds and language. Music automatically sharpens the nervous system's response to sounds.

The study was conducted as part of the Harmony Project, which provides instruments and free music tuition for American schoolchildren in certain deprived urban areas.

For more information visit www.harmony-project.org/