High school music classes enhance the neural processing of speech

Tierney, A., Krizman, J., Skoe, E. Johnston, K. & Kraus, N. (2013). High school music classes enhance the neural processing of speech. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. 1-7.

Abstract:

This study examines the impact of two years of in-school music instruction on high school students from predominantly low socio-economic backgrounds as compared with their classmates who received an alternate, non-musical instruction. Researchers found that students who participated in musical instruction had earlier neural responses to speech sound in background noise than the students enrolled in the alternate program. The data suggests that in-school music education, not just expensive private one-on-one instruction, can provide advantages to students in their adolescent years. 

Key Findings:

This study reveals that high school music instruction enhances how the brain encodes speech in adolescents from low socio-economic background, a neural advantage previously only found as a result of more extensive one-on-one training. As socio-economic status has been correlated with language function, this study suggests that in-school musical training may be able to mitigate some negative consequences of poverty. 

Significance of the Findings:

The findings are significant for two primary reasons. First, the impact is proven to be significant on adolescent students with no prior musical training. Previous studies have focused on the effect on younger students who show greater gains due to their neural plasticity. This study reveals that the window for successful training-based intervention is still open with adolescents. Secondly, this study is unique in that participants were adolescents undergoing group music classes within a public high school setting. Previous research has focused on one-on-one and/or private musical instruction.

Methodology:

Forty-three adolescents attending three public high schools in Chicago participated in the study. Students were enrolled, as per their school's curriculum, in either music or Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corp (JROTC), which is described in the study as a fitness class. No participant in the fitness program had any prior music training. All participants were tested for their neural response to auditory stimulus prior to the training and immediately after two years of training. An earphone was inserted in the participant's right ear which delivered the stimulus sound. The stimulus was a synthesized speech syllable presented in the context of multi-talker background babble. Electrodes recorded students' neural responses to the stimulus sound. Researchers then analyzed the timing shifts between the pre- and post-training response times to determine the timing shifts between the two tests. The data between the two groups was then compared using ANOVA, a statistical method used to test the difference between two or more factors.

Limitations of the Research:

One limitation to the research is the inability of the researchers to rule out the possibility that individuals with already existent superior auditory abilities are drawn to music and that accounts for their increased neural response as opposed to the musical training intervention. While the evidence here strongly suggest a causative role of in-school music training in enhancing the neural encoding of speech, it is unclear how this enhancement plays a role in improving academic performance.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Future research should investigate how neural changes translate to academic benefits. Likewise, future research should examine whether improved academic achievement as a result of music training can be attributed specifically to increased perceptual or cognitive skills developed because of that training.