Our mission is to promote research and public awareness about the impact of music on health and wellness. Visit our website here.
This Month's Topic:
 Tracking Music Training and Brain Development -
How Researchers Partner with Community Organizations
In Conversation
The Case For Music Education
This In Conversation piece was adapted from a white paper outlining the effects of music training on child development, written by SHN’s Communications Core Lead, Indre Viskontas. You can find it here.

While earning her doctorate in Public Health at UCLA, Margaret Martin had a habit of visiting the nearby farmer’s market. One morning, she watched as a group of Los Angeles gang members, sporting all the usual gang signs, stopped in front of a tiny kid playing Brahms on the violin. They listened for a few minutes and then, without discussing it, each of the gang members pulled out a few dollars and laid them into the child’s case.
What struck Margaret was the feeling that these gang members appreciated what the kid was doing, and probably wished they could be playing music instead of engaging in gang-related activities. But no one had given them the chance. 

So in 2001, once she had finished her doctorate, Margaret decided to work towards giving kids in gang-run communities the chance that these individuals had missed out on. She founded the Harmony Project, starting with 36 high needs students and a $9,000 check from the Rotary Club. Since then, the project has grown to include more than a dozen youth orchestras and bands in LA and seven affiliated programs in places like Tulsa, OK, Kansas City, MO and Hudson, NY. 

Venezuelan educator José Antonio Abreu recognized decades ago the power of music as an agent for social change. “Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion,” Abreu has said. “And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings.”

To harness this power, he launched the transformative El Sistema movement, credited with rescuing thousands of Venezuelan children living in extreme poverty from a life of drug abuse and crime. This is the program that inspired the Harmony Project. 

One of El Sistema’s graduates is Los Angeles Philharmonic’s star conductor Gustavo Dudamel. “Music saved my life and has saved the lives of thousands of at risk children in Venezuela...like food, like health care, like education, music has to be a right for every citizen,” says Dudamel. 

Under his leadership, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Angeles (YOLA) program was launched to provide a free community-based music education program inspired by the success of El Sistema. It provides students from underserved neighborhoods in LA with free instruments, intensive music training and academic support. One such neighborhood is the Rampart District, the country’s second most densely populated neighborhood with an average household income of $27,000, where YOLA implemented the YOLA at the Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) program. 

During the 2017/18 academic year, the Harmony Project enrolled 5,767 students and 100% of the class graduated from high school, with all but one accepted into colleges, despite the fact that the high school dropout rates are about 50% in their communities. 
But the Harmony Project isn’t just a successful community program; it’s also a fertile ground for research into the impact of music education on the brain. Led by Dr. Nina Kraus at Northwestern University, the collaboration between researchers and the project leaders has demonstrated key insights.

Children who had stuck with the program for at least two years had stronger neural signals to speech sounds compared with students in music appreciation classes or no classes at all. Making music matters: simply listening isn’t enough to cause measurable brain changes. And although music is a powerful tool for neuroplasticity, the nervous system is resistant to change. That’s why it takes prolonged exposure and effort to reshape the brain. Active engagement is the key to turning on neuroplasticity in children and adults alike.

Partnering with the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, YOLA at HOLA also includes a research component. Led by this month's webinar panelist, Dr. Assal Habibi, a 5-year study was launched in 2012 to track how this program impacts the brains, cognitive and social development, and overall well-being and success of its students. Twenty-five kids aged 6-7 from the program were compared with kids who participated in either a sports training program or after-school enrichment program.

All the children were tested before any training with structural and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Electroencephalography (EEG), and a comprehensive battery of psychological and social tests. These tests gave the scientists the opportunity to look at the brains of the kids, along with the development of mental abilities and their social and emotional skills. Then, the kids came back for testing once a year for 5 years.
When the study began, the kids were no different from each other on any of the brain measures, psychological or social and emotional tests.  But in a follow-up study, scientists began to see differences. Kids in the music program were better at pitch perception and production, what we call musically-relevant skills, which is not that surprising. But they also showed more mature auditory pathways, meaning that they were better at processing all kinds of sounds, and measurable changes in the auditory regions of the brain.

They also had more connectivity between their right and left hemispheres, just like professional musicians, who have a bigger corpus callosum, the fiber tract that joins the hemispheres. Imagine the benefits that bigger leg muscles would give a sprinter: now imagine how more white matter, or connections between the hemispheres could give a kid an edge when it comes to being creative or integrating information.

The scientists also found that cognitive and executive function skills, like holding multiple ideas in mind at the same time, were better in the musically-trained kids. With functional imaging, the researchers discovered that the kids in YOLA at HOLA showed more activation in the frontal regions of the brain, which are critical for high-level thinking, during decision-making and other tasks that require focus.

You can learn more about the research that came out of the Harmony Project here in an informative website created and maintained by Dr. Nina Kraus and her lab.

To learn more about the partnership between YOLA at HOLA and the Brain and Creativity Institute, please join us on March 24, 2021 at 4pm EST/1pm PST for Music Training and Brain Development: An Innovative Community-Academic Partnership. This webinar will feature Assal Habibi, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California and Elsje Kibler-Vermaas, VP of Learning at the LA Philharmonic as they discuss their partnership with the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra (YOLA) to study the effects of music training on brain development. Register here for more information.
Research Spotlight: Music Training and Brain Development

Impact of a classical music training program on musicality scores, total IQ, concentration abilities and reading.

Children enrolled in orchestral training for 3 months showed improvement in inhibitory control. Results may have implications for children diagnosed with ADHD.

This paper discusses the age-old question of whether musicians are a result of training or because of predispositions and discusses the importance of longitudinal studies in children.

Development of a reliable Rhythm Synchronization and Melody Discrimination task, which have been used in several studies linked in this newsletter.

This study followed a group of primary-school students from gang reduction zones in Los Angeles, CA, USA for 2 years as they participated in Harmony Project.
Job Opportunities

PhD scholarship: The University of Melbourne, Australia
Funding Opportunities

NEA Research Labs funds transdisciplinary research teams grounded in the social and behavioral sciences, yielding empirical insights about the arts for the benefit of arts and non-arts sectors alike.

Over the next five years, Creative Forces®: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Military Healing Arts Network intends to provide $2.5 million in new research funding.

NEA Research Grants in the Arts funds research studies that investigate the value and/or impact of the arts, either as individual components of the U.S. arts ecology or as they interact with each other and/or with other domains of American life.

This funding opportunity is intended to: (1) increase our understanding of how music affects the brain when it is used therapeutically and/or (2) use that knowledge to better develop evidence-based music interventions to enhance health or treat specific diseases and disorders.

This funding opportunity is intended to: (1) increase our understanding of how music affects the brain when it is used therapeutically and/or (2) use that knowledge to better develop evidence-based music interventions to enhance health or treat specific diseases and disorders.

The purpose of this FOA is to promote innovative research on music and health with an emphasis on developing music interventions aimed at understanding their mechanisms of action and clinical applications for the treatment of many diseases, disorders, and conditions.