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How music technology can boost student skills

A new study reveals that music education can offset widespread student achievement gaps, enhance student learning skills, and promote better brain function later in life. The good news for schools is that whether or not music funding is available, new music technology can provide students with music education at little to no cost.

“We are what we do,” said Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles professor and principal investigator at the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University. “And the brain helps prove that.”

(Next page: How music affects student learning)

According to Kraus’s research, as well as years of previous research, when music is played, the brain’s neurons produce an electrical mirror of the sound heard.

Also fascinating is the brain’s dependence on experience. For example, if the brain hears a few notes of a song it recognizes, even if the song stops playing, the brain will often continue mirroring the next few notes of the song.

For a recording of the brain’s electrical responses to music, watch the slideshow.

“What this proves to us is that music experience enhances sound processing, and this is applied to language skills,” said Kraus.

Learning music also boosts communication skills (hearing in noise, auditory working memory, auditory attention, and rhythm) and biological functions (the way the brain processes and identifies consonants, speech in noise, and patterns of rhythm), said Kraus. “And all of these processes are necessary for literacy.”

But Kraus and her team wanted to narrow the research, focusing on the questions: “What affect does music have in school-based, group settings?” and “Can music help close the knowledge gap in low-income students?”

Kraus studied second grade Los Angeles students enrolled in the Harmony Project (HP), a community-funded program that gives low-income students ages eight  to 18 and older instruments, five or more hours per week of music classes and rehearsals, the ability to build full-time bands and orchestras, and access to peer mentors and trained supervisors.

This multi-year commitment to HP usually occurs through high school and beyond. So far, more 1,600 students in three states are involved in HP, and the program has received two presidential awards from the White House.

“Music not only helps with learning skills, but helps students process and express deep feelings,” said Margaret Martin, founder of the Harmony Project. “It also elevates mood and brings people together.”

Over the past six years, 96 percent of HP high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone to college.

Intrigued by this success, Kraus studied 80 students from the L.A. HP, as well as 150 freshman high school students in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) music program. All students come from low-income areas.

“We already know that there’s a strong relationship between maternal education income and reduced linguistic stimulation,” said Kraus. “If a mother has little education and the student lives in a low-income home or neighborhood, by age five many kids have a significant word gap. They also experience more neural noise and response to sound is diminished and less consistent.”

Kraus wondered if low-income children who had participated in at least two years of music education would catch up to middle-income students’ linguistic and processing skills.

(Next page: The results of Kraus’s study)

The study began with a pre-test of all students for biological responses, cognitive responses, and emotional –social behavior. Students went into one of two groups–a control group without music education, and a group with music education. After the first year, students took a post-test, and they continued in their groups for another two years.

The results were incredible, said Kraus, as those students who never participated in HP followed the current national average of showing diminished reading scores year after year. However, students who did receive music education increased their reading scores year after year.

Students in HP also improved in speech perception in noise—a skill most musicians acquire. Those in the control group did not experience improvement in speech perception in noise.

Kraus is currently evaluating the data for CPS.

She also noted that the skills students learn while studying music don’t diminish the effects on the brain later in life.

“The brain continues to profit even after you stop playing music. Forty-five young adults at Northwestern [University] participated in a study that showed if a person had five or more years of music education he or she is able to process sound more accurately and filter out noise,” she said.

“Music has the power to shape human brain function within one’s lifespan,” she concluded. “We really are what we do.”

For more information on Kraus’ study, as well as more information on how music enhances sound processing for language and cognitive skills, as well as offsets the academic gap “between the rich and poor,” and alters the nervous system to create a better learner, check out the Auditory Neuroscience Lab.

Beyond funded programs

Though the Harmony Project’s Martin suggests schools, districts, and states use this neuroscience research to invest remediation funds into music education, she realizes that a community-funded and supported program like HP isn’t always available to all communities.

That’s why music education stakeholders, like musician Quincy Jones, promote software and inexpensive apps for interested students and educators.

(Next page: Inexpensive software and apps for music education)

Jones’s software, Playground Sessions, helps students learn to play the piano using popular songs. Playground Sessions also has hours of interactive video tutorials starring pianist David Sides teaching songs and music theory, explains the Playground Sessions website.

Playground Sessions’ platform includes a music store for sheet music, video lessons, and a MIDI keyboard setup for learning to play through popular music.

The software offers two subscription plans–annual subscriptions for $9.99 per month/$119.88 a year; quarterly subscriptions are $44.97 for 3 months. Membership includes a boot camp curriculum with lessons on basic keyboard skills, notation, ear training, and rhythm. Students will also get discounts on video tutorials and sheet music.

The software platform works on both PC and Apple.

Overview of Playground Sessions

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Other technology for students interested in music includes a just-released video game app that teaches kids how to play the piano.

The video game, Piano Wizard, has already taught thousands of students how to play an instrument “within minutes,” according to a press release from Piano Wizard Academy.

“Piano Wizard’s move to mobile devices helps share accessible music education without the need for costly equipment, lessons, or dreaded practice time,” the company said in a statement.

According to the company, the free iOS app uses a “unique five-step system [that] emphasizes sensory learning, which mimics the way you learn native language, first by doing, then gradually showing how to read the musical notes you have already learned to play.”

Piano Wizard became available for pre-order on Aug. 12 through Kickstarter.  The app is free, though additional songs start at $.99.

Overview of Piano Wizard

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MakeMusic, Inc. also recently announced the release of its free SmartMusic iPad app, which is now available in the Apple App Store. The interactive music education app delivers functionality used in the desktop version of SmartMusic, including practice tools, assessment, and accompaniment features—all for use on the iPad.

Along with a SmartMusic annual subscription, the app gives unlimited access to SmartMusic’s library, including more than 50 method books, nearly 50,000 skill building exercises, and a combined 22,000+ solo and ensemble titles by major publisherss.

Watch an overview of SmartMusic:

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Meris Stansbury

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