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What parents need to know about children's brains on music

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If you learned how to play a recorder or ukelele in school, you may have built up brain functions that boosted your ability to do better in school, especially if you kept up with practice.

Latest neuroscience studies by noted researcher Nina Kraus of Northwestern University suggest learning a musical instrument helps children boost their auditory processing, meaning they get better at things like communication and literacy skills. 

It was only after two years, however, that the benefits of practicing became clear in a recent study, Kraus said at KPCC's "Music and the Brain" event at the Crawford Family Forum Sunday. 

Her research on music and the brain suggests children achieve big gains if they are actively learning to play an instrument, and not just listening to music.

Kraus' study of students at Los Angeles' Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides music education to low-income youth, found the benefits didn't come immediately for students who practiced in class five days a week.

"After two years, we were able to measure very fundamental, biological changes in auditory processing. So it really does take time," she said.

Another tip from Kraus: to boost memory, have children listen to music they care about. She says our emotional connection to music helps improve auditory learning. 

Suzanne Gindin, founder and executive director of the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra which performed at the Sunday event, said her students displayed improvements in social skills in addition to reading and math. While she said her observations are anecdotal, she agreed that the benefits emerged only after ongoing practice.

She said the benefits of musical instruction should be clear to school administrators who decide on funding priorities. Gindin said she routinely sees music students at Orange High School, where she teaches, thriving and getting into college.  

"It's not that they chose music because they're wonderful," she said. "It's the music that made them wonderful."

It often takes just a little bit of money and a dedicated teacher for other schools to achieve similar results, said Kristen Madsen, senior vice president of The GRAMMY Foundation that supports music education and research.

Parents interested in pushing for music programs in their children's schools should contact their principals, the school board members and district superintendent, Gindin said. 

To watch video of the event, go to's events page

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