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Northwestern study finds music education changes the teen brain

By Becky Vevea,

Inside the choir room at a Chicago charter school, 41 students sing through several warm ups. The exercise is a basic scale, but it’s sung in a canon, with each section of the choir on a different note.

“There’s 41 of you here, and 41 minds have to be completely locked into what we’re doing in order for us to get that sound,” teacher Kelsey Tortorice tells her students at UIC College Prep, a campus of the Noble Street Network of Charter Schools in Chicago.

A new study by the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University revealed music instruction, and studying music in general, changes the teenage brain, so long as students participate for at least two years.

The researchers found that studying music alters teen brains in a way that makes them better able to focus and process sound — a development that’s particularly important for learning.

For five years, beginning in 2009, Northwestern neurobiologist Nina Kraus and a team of researchers measured the brains of students in choir or band at UIC College Prep and three other public high schools in Chicago and one in Evanston. Once a year, researchers would record each student’s brain waves as they played various sounds.

They found that after two years, the brains of the students studying music did a better job processing sound and were less distracted by background noise than peers who didn’t study music long term.

“What is really kind of stunning is that these ingredients that are important for language are also the same ones that are strengthened by making music,” Kraus said.

Kraus has conducted similar studies in the past. But the Chicago study was different because music wasn’t optional; it was mandatory for multiple years.

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Students at UIC College Prep in Chicago studying music in December 2016. (Photo credit Becky Vevea/WBEZ)

Kate Johnston, choir director at UIC College Prep when the school opened in 2008, said she gave the principal a kind of ultimatum.

“I said, ‘If you hire me, music will not be thought of as just an ancillary subject, but it will be thought of as a core subject, like math and science,’ ” Johnston said. “And he said, ‘Do you mean everybody takes it in the school?’ And I said, ‘why not?’ ”

Johnston linked up with Kraus after former UIC College Prep Principal Oliver Sicat asked if music classes helped with literacy even in the teenage years. When the findings were released, Johnston was thrilled to see scientific proof of something she’s always felt to be true.

“I was grasping for one more piece of data I could hand to a decision-maker and say alright, this matters,” she said. “Do you see this student’s brain from this age to this age? Here’s what it looks like when they had this, and here’s what it looks like when they don’t.”

Johnston now teaches choir at Chicago’s Walter Payton College Prep. The program at her old school, UIC College Prep, doesn’t mandate music all four years any more. And she’s not naive enough to think this study will suddenly make school districts increase their music requirements, though she’s hopeful.

Currently, Chicago Public Schools requires one year of “arts education” for graduation, which can include anything from band to graphic design.

Tortorice said the one-year requirement is good, but to really benefit from studying music, there needs to be more of it at all ages.

“It’s very, very obvious when kids come to us whether they had music growing up or not,” she said. “Being able to match a pitch, being able to tap a steady beat. These are things that more than half of our kids are not able to do when they get to us.”

At their holiday concert, Tortorice’s class sang a couple of classics, but also got to sing “All We Got,” a popular song from the latest album from Chicago-native Chance the Rapper.

In late December, after posting a video of their concert, they even got a little attention from Chance himself. He retweeted their video and wrote: “AMAZING!! Music is all we got. You guys sound great!”


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