Youth Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, leads the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. (Photo/Craig T. Mathew, Mathew Imaging)

Learning to play an instrument boosts a child’s creativity, but new research shows it may also help grow the brain itself.

At a time when many elementary schools have cut or reduced their music programs, neuroscientists at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) found that music instruction may be important for brain development in young children, particularly in the areas of the brain that process sound, language and speech.

For five years, USC neuroscientists followed nearly three dozen children from low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles to see how children’s behavior and brains changed over time. One group of children learned to play the violin or other instruments starting at age 6 or 7, while a second group played soccer. A third didn’t participate in any specific afterschool programs.

When the scientists compared the groups two years into the study, they found that the budding musicians had more developed auditory pathways, which connect the ear to the brain.

“These results reflect that children with music training, compared with the two other comparison groups, were more accurate in processing sound,” says Assal Habibi, senior research associate at the BCI in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

A more-developed auditory system can accelerate a child’s brain development beyond musical ability. “This system is also engaged in general sound processing that is fundamental to language development, reading skills and successful communication,” Habibi says.

He and his team plan to explore whether music instruction could accelerate development of language, reading and other abilities in young children.

Habibi is a faculty member in the BCI’s Music and the Brain project.

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