Studying Music in High School Can Help Students Process Sound, Language

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 28, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teens’ brains can benefit from learning to make music, according to findings from a new study in Chicago.

For more than a decade, Nina Kraus, the director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, has been on a quest to understand the biology of sound. Her research has explored how things like bilingualism, aging, and ambient noise show up in and change the brain. At the U.S. Department of Education this week, Kraus shared some of her findings on sound and the brain with a room full of policymakers, teachers, and department staff.

The Chicago project’s findings build on work done on a music program in Los Angeles called the Harmony Project. In 2014, Kraus and a group of researchers released findings from a study on the Harmony Project showing that students’ ability to process sound was improved after two years of music study.

Both studies examine students’ ability to distinguish between meaningful and meaningless sound. “The brain makes sound-to-meaning connections,” Kraus said. “It turns out that making music can strengthen exactly the processing in the brain that is important for language, for reading, for making sense of sound.”

The newer study focuses on high schoolers in Chicago Public Schools. Kraus found that participating in a music ensemble for two years was associated with improved brain responses to speech and stronger reading skills. The findings are highlighted in a June article in the journal Neuroscientist called “The Neurobiology of Everyday Communication: What Have We Learned From Music?”

Students attended music class three-to-six times each week. A second group of students participated in JROTC, an army physical education and character-building program. The students in Chicago had never participated in organized music activities at school before the research began, which was during their freshman year, Kraus said.

After two years, reading skills in both groups had improved—but the music group’s scores improved more. The music students also showed changes in the part of the brain that processes sound.

In an interview with Education Week, Kraus said it’s important that students were actually learning to make music, not just listening to it. “This was not a music appreciation class,” she said.

She said the findings are also striking because many studies have followed people with access to private lessons or afterschool programs. These students were learning to make music in school and in group settings.

Kraus said it’s particularly relevant for students who are growing up in poverty or with parents who have had less formal education—as was the case for many of the students in the Chicago school. Other research has shown that students whose mothers are less educated have a harder time processing sound. She said the Chicago study shows that learning to make music can help strengthen that auditory processing.

There’s been a lot of focus on early-childhood education and the importance of reaching kids early. But this study is a reminder that the brains of high schoolers are also in flux, Kraus said. “So much is happening in their nervous systems.”

Kraus said that her research on music and other types of sound holds lessons for people who care about education.

“Biology is really informing us that having a balanced education, one that involves music, is beneficial biologically for learning,” she said. “Sound is fundamental to communication and learning.”

She said that research on how bilingualism strengthens the brain also can help encourage students who are learning a new language. “Some kids view their bilingualism as a liability,” she said. “But in fact, it really makes them, from a biological standpoint, better able to identify sounds and make sense of them.”

Finally, she said that schools should “avoid meaningless noise.” Construction, traffic, classroom noise—all can make it harder for students to learn.

Kraus’ research on sound and the brain is online at It doesn’t stop with school: Kraus’ lab has also shown that playing an instrument in childhood positively affects the brain well into adulthood, and that elderly musicians are more able to understand meaningful sound in noisy environments. The website also includes slideshows, including one on music, that illustrate and explain sound and the brain throughout life.

Photo: Researcher Nina Kraus presents information about the biology of sound at the U.S. Department of Education. Noel St. John, NAMM Foundation

Related stories:

For more news and information on curriculum and instruction:

And sign up here to get alerts in your email inbox when stories are published on Curriculum Matters.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum He Taught About White Privilege and Got Fired. Now He's Fighting to Get His Job Back
Matthew Hawn is an early casualty in this year's fight over how teachers can discuss with students America's struggle with racism.
13 min read
Social studies teacher Matthew Hawn is accused of insubordination and repeated unprofessional conduct for sharing Kyla Jenèe Lacey's, 'White Privilege', poem with his Contemporary Issues class. Hawn sits on his couch inside his home on August 17, 2021.
Matthew Hawn is accused of insubordination and repeated unprofessional conduct for lessons and materials he used to teach about racism and white privilege in his Contemporary Issues class at Sullivan Central High School in Blountville, Tenn.<br/>
Caitlin Penna for Education Week
Curriculum What's the Best Way to Address Unfinished Learning? It's Not Remediation, Study Says
A new study suggests acceleration may be a promising strategy for addressing unfinished learning in math after a pandemic year.
5 min read
Female high school student running on the stairs leads to an opportunity to success
CreativaImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Curriculum School Halts Use of Fictional Book in Which Officer Kills a Black Child
Fifth graders in at least one Broward County school were assigned to read a book that critics say casts police officers as racist liars.
Rafael Olmeda, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
5 min read
Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff listens during a meeting of the Broward County School Board, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff listens during a meeting of the Broward County School Board in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Alhadeff told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that she does not feel like the book "Ghost Boys" is appropriate for 5th graders.
Lynne Sladky/AP
Curriculum Opinion Introducing Primary Sources to Students
Five educators share strategies for introducing primary sources to students, including English-language learners.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."