It has long been observed that students who play musical instruments often excel in academics. This phenomenon known as “musician’s advantage” is correlated with better vocabulary, reading, non-verbal reasoning, and attention skills. Because music and language both rely on auditory processing and in similar ways, music instruction has been shown to ameliorate language impairments as well as remedy some reading problems. But is this a coincidence, a product of environment, or a feat of neural plasticity?
Previously, this question of the basis of the ‘musicians advantage” has been difficult to ascertain. This difficulty is due to the fact that being instructed in an instrument is highly correlated with being in a higher socio-economic class. On its own affluence tends to provide advantages in academics such as more highly educated parents who have more time and resources to help their children with school. Even so, many researchers still believed that musical instruction is uniquely beneficial independent of other factors like wealth.
To see if it was possible that music was improving scholarship independently from affluence, researchers began looking at children in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It is known that children living at the poverty line often have brain deficits such as poorer neural encoding of sound which leads to less efficient auditory processing which can negatively affect reading skills.
In this study, researchers matched inner-city high school students on reading ability, IQ, and auditory nerve activation speed. The students then either joined a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Course (Jr. ROTC) or a music training program where they worked on focusing on sight reading, playing technique, and musical performance.
Two years later, the students who had been in the music program showed faster responses to a speech-noise stimulus, suggesting that their brains had improved by music. These findings provide evidence that music instruction can improve sound processing in academics by experience-dependent plasticity in the brain, fueling the argument that music classes should part of every student’s education. In addition to students, elderly individuals with a history of music instruction can better differentiate speech from noise, showing that the changes in neural circuitry that aid communication can persist in old age.
This study also provides evidence that the benefits of music instruction, “musician’s advantage”, is caused by the music instruction itself instead of affluence or parental involvement. It would seem that music instruction could be used as a therapy for learning disabilities or brain injuries as well as for protection from aging and just being a better student.