Worried About Your Teen Getting Into College? Consider Music Lessons

02/07/2017 06:02 pm ET

Gaining mastery over any challenge your teen may face – sports, travel abroad, or acing AP Math – results in feelings of being ready to take on the challenge of post-secondary education. But many high school students aren’t able to compete, or don’t have access to classes and experiences that improve their chances for getting into and succeeding in college.

However, music training begun as late as high school may help improve the teenage brain's responses to sound and sharpen hearing and language skills, suggests a new study from Northwestern University.

Nina Kraus, senior study author and director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the School of Communication recruited 40 Chicago-area high school freshmen in a study that began shortly before school started. They followed these children longitudinally until their senior year. The stable processing of sound details, important for language skills, is known to be diminished in children raised in poverty, raising the possibility that music education may offset this negative influence on sound processing.

"While music programs are often the first to be cut when the school budget is tight, these results highlight music's place in the high school curriculum," said Kraus.

Can Music Lessons Make a Difference?

The U.S. Department of Education recommends at least one year of visual and performing arts for college-bound high school students asserting, “Many colleges view participation in the arts and music as valuable experience that broadens students’ understanding and appreciation of the world around them.” In addition, music education plays a part in improving “children’s intellectual development.”

According to the Children’s Music Workshop, a Los Angeles-area music education company specializing in school-site music instruction, music education advocacy, and custom-designed band and orchestra books. “Students taking courses in music performance and music appreciation scored higher in the SAT than students with no arts participation. Music performance students scored 53 points higher on the verbal and 39 points higher on the math. Music appreciation students scored 61 points higher on the verbal and 42 points higher on the math.

While music programs are proven to improve academic performance, they are continuously in danger of being cut from shrinking school budgets. Statistics show that even with a tight budget, both high schools and high school students benefit tremendously from music programs:

  • Secondary students who participated in a music group at school reported the lowest lifetime and current use of all substances (tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs).
  • Schools that have music programs have an attendance rate of 93.3% compared to schools without music education, which average 84.9% in attendance. Music ensemble performance helps strengthen social bonds and feelings of being valued.
  • Schools with music programs have an estimated 90.2% graduation rate compared to schools without music education, which average 72.9% graduation.
  • Children with learning disabilities or dyslexia who tend to lose focus with more noise could benefit greatly from music lessons.
  • Children who study a musical instrument are more likely to excel in all of their studies, work better in teams, have enhanced critical thinking skills, stay in school, and pursue post-secondary education.

In Northwestern University’s study, nearly half the students enrolled in band classes, involving two to three hours of instrumental group music instruction in school weekly. The rest enrolled in junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), during a similar period. Both groups attended the same schools in low-income neighborhoods. "Although learning to play music does not teach skills that seem directly relevant to most careers, the results suggest that music may engender what educators refer to as 'learning to learn,'" said Kraus.

The researchers reported that electrode recordings at the start of the study and three years later revealed that the music group showed more rapid maturation in the brain's response to sound. More significantly they demonstrated prolonged heightened brain sensitivity to sound details. Studies show that music can improve your teen’s self-esteem as well by helping to determine your teen’s values, while gaining control over his or her life and responsibilities. Investing in and supporting music lessons for teens can help high school students get into – and excel – at college and beyond.

National Resources for Teachers and Parents

Fender Music Foundation The famed guitar manufacturer provides resources for music education programs to schools, and local and national music programs across the United States.

Everyone Gets Music This non-profit organization brings education to schools without music programs and contributes to existing public school music education programs by teaching kids (privately, and in small group classes) whose families cannot afford private music instruction.

MusicUnites A national charity for at-risk public school students providing free after-school music programs to youth through school-based partnerships, along with special monthly workshops designed in alignment with standards for career and college readiness.

VH1 Save The Music A nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring music programs in America’s public schools, and raising awareness about the tremendously positive effect music education has on a child’s academic performance, sense of community, self­-expression and self­-esteem. The org believes music should be part of each child’s complete education.

Rebecca J. Lacko is an author and journalist with a passion for music, education and healthy living. Get acquainted at The Written Word.

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