New Study Investigates the Cognitive and Linguistic Benefits of Music Education in Public Schools

For those of us who had music education as children or who have seen our own children flower under music education, the benefits are clear. Although there have been studies and research in recent years on the various benefits of music and its effects on the brain, there has to date been little examination of the effects of school-based music education on children. Further, what research has been done on music education, primarily of students who have had private music lessons, tends to focus on its creative and social benefits.  The NAMM Foundation has partnered with Northwestern University to fund a two-year research project aimed at exploring the immediate and long-term cognitive effects of school-based music education, focusing in part on the benefits to language and literacy.

Dr. Nina Kraus, head of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, has over 25 years of experience researching the relationship between music and the brain. In previous years Dr. Kraus’ research has demonstrated that musicians tend to have superior fine-motor skills, increased language skills such as vocabulary, literacy, sound processing and retention (memory), and reasoning[1].  In a study published earlier this year benefits to linguistic abilities in musicians as young as three was evidenced in cognitive testing and brainstem response, even after a few years of musical training[2].  Subjects exhibited an enhanced recognition of similar speech sounds, sound memory, and sound attention.  These benefits appear to persist well into adulthood, in some cases long after the actual training or musicianship has ended.

The early findings on phonological processing, or the ability to differentiate similar sounds in speech, is of particular interest in an ever-increasing global community where the ability to communicate in multiple languages is beneficial to business, government, and NGOs alike.  Because one of the greatest difficulties in learning languages post-adolescence is being able to hear the subtle differences in a foreign language that do not exist on one’s native language, and then reproduce them, early musical training may offer a leg up to adult language learners because of an enhanced ability to recognize such differences that has been hardwired into their brains by early music education. Other barriers to adult language learning such as the ability to build a working fluency may also be enhanced because of music education effects on auditory memory and vocabulary.

The two studies in this NAMM partnered research project, “The Harmony Project: Biological Benefits of Musical Training in At-Risk Children” and “Impact of In-School Music Classes: Rhythm, Language and the Brain” will build upon the previous findings in the under-studied demographics of public school children and urban youth[3].  Over the past decade, the NAMM Foundation has invested close to $80 million in support of music education the U.S. and abroad, including educational programs, scholarships, and grants for research such as that undertaken by Dr. Kraus and her team at Brainvolts, the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.

[1] Kraus, Dr. Nina. “Facing the Music: Musicianship’s effect on the brain.” Canadian Hearing Report, Official Publication of the Canadian Academy of Audiology, Vol. 8 No.2 (2013). <>

[2] Parbery-Clark, Anderson, Kraus. “Musicians’ Enhanced Neural differentiation of Speech Sounds Arises Early in Life: Developmental Evidence from Ages 3 to 30.” Cerebral Cortex, April 18 (2013). <doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht103>

[3] “The NAMM Foundation and Northwestern University Partner on First-of-Kind Music Training Research Projects.” May 28 (2013). <>