Music Training Can Be a Literacy Superpower
When kids study music—intensively and over long periods of time—they become better readers. Here’s what’s at play.
When he was 10 years old, Gevon Goddard started playing the cello with Play On Philly, an intense music program offered at his Philadelphia middle school. Soon, he was practicing and playing cello more than 10 hours each week.
The more he practiced, Goddard said, the easier school seemed to get. He was able to read and analyze reading passages faster and better, for example, and he understood more of the words inside the text. “My music lessons made me a stronger student,” said Goddard, now a junior at Temple University. “I’d use my music skills to analyze a passage, and get the highest grade in the class.” His rigorous musical training helped Goddard “home in” on academic areas he struggled with and “get them fixed.” An average student in middle school, he became a high-achieving high school student, consistently earning As in his classes.
The connection is unexpected: Practicing the trumpet or the cello can make you a better musician, but can it really make you a better reader, too?
The human brain was never designed to read, and unlike areas dedicated to language and music, there is no “reading center” of the brain and no identifiable “reading genes” in human cells. Humans invented reading and writing just a little over 5,000 years ago, essentially rewiring existing brain structures dedicated to vision and language into a specialized circuit to quickly scan visual symbols and turn them into meaning.
Put simply, the neural circuit for reading—often called the reading brain—combines processes used for vision in the cortex (to see written letters and words), hearing in the auditory cortex (to hear the sounds and rhythms that letters and words make and connect them to the written words), and language in the left hemisphere (to comprehend the meaning of written letters and words).
Playing or learning to sing music, according to neuroscientists, is a parallel process. A student who plays the piano, for example, scans the notes on a sheet of music and connects them with the sounds they make; listens intently to connect the notes and hear if they’re played at the right pitch and time; and actively anticipates what’s coming next in the music. See the symbol on the page, hear the sound the symbol makes, anticipate what’s likely to come next: Playing a sonata is similar to reading a poem or a difficult scientific passage.
Working on challenging musical tasks over and over again, researchers say, strengthens the reading circuit dramatically, which in turn delivers a robust academic boost. “Schools are always worried that students aren’t reading well enough,” said Elaine Bernstorf, professor of music education and coauthor of The Music and Literacy Connection, referring to the tendency to treat reading as a distinct activity. But often, she said, schools don’t realize that “music teachers are reading teachers.”
The Sound of Reading
Learning how to read in a new language can be difficult for immigrant children. But in 2016, a group of researchers from Justus Liebig University in Germany found that a relatively low-lift music training program—20 weeks of singing and rhythmic drumming three times a week for 20 minutes—had a significant impact on the phonological awareness of the immigrant preschoolers in the study. “Despite the small sample size of this study, we found a large effect size of music training on phonological awareness, especially on the word level comprising blending, segmentation, and rhyming,” the researchers concluded.
Music training improves the process of reading first by sharpening the brain’s attention to sound; as a child learns to read and play or sing specific notes, the brain’s ability to separate parallel units of sound that make up words, called phonemes, becomes more acute, says neurobiologist Nina Kraus, author of Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World. The sensitivity starts early: Even babies exposed to rudimentary melodies show improved ability to detect subtle shifts in the rhythms of language from exposure to music: “The ability to quickly extract patterns and predictively code future stimuli has been demonstrated in both adults and infants—yet the potential that it may be enhanced through a music intervention in infancy is exciting,” write study authors T. Christina Zhao and Patricia Kuhl of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “This idea corroborates recent evidence suggesting enhanced higher-level cognitive abilities—working memory and executive function, for example—in musically trained adults and children.”
Underlying it all are notable changes to brain structures that result from music training. In a two-year study of young music students compared with students who didn’t take music lessons, neuroscientist Assal Habibi and her team at the University of Southern California found that the music students’ auditory cortex, which is involved in sound perception, speech, and language, showed slower cortical thinning, and the corpus callosum, which facilitates the communication between brain hemispheres, had more robust connectivity. “Learning music seems to accelerate the development and maturation in the areas that process sound, speech, and rhythm,” Habibi told Edutopia. “When age-matched to control groups, the musicians’ brains look more adult-like.”
Improved Focus, Attention, and Memory
The life-altering musical experience of Gevon Goddard, the middle school student who took up the cello after joining Play On Philly, is no surprise to Stanford Thompson, the program’s founder and executive director. Following a hunch that improved executive function played a part in the remarkable outcomes he was seeing among his students, Thompson enlisted CUNY psychologist Steven Holochwost to take a deeper look.
Over a period of two years, Holochwost and his team gave the music students a series of tasks to test their working memory, inhibitory control, and selective attention—the core functions of executive function—to track improvement over time. The researchers found that the music students not only “scored higher on standardized tests [and] earned better grades in English language arts and math,” but also showed “superior performance on select tasks of EF (executive function) and short-term memory,” Holochwost and his colleagues wrote.
Other research confirms Holochwost’s findings: Preschoolers in China showed improved self-regulation after 12 weeks of singing, dancing, and basic music theory; and after music training, Canadian children showed strong “transfer” of executive function skills to nonmusical tasks.
Studies showing these kinds of brain changes have big implications for the role of music training in kids’ lives—like a sixth grader named Andres. When Andres began learning how to play the violin through the Harmony Project, an after-school music program in Los Angeles, he was academically behind and struggling in ESL classes. But by the end of seventh grade, he’d moved up to a high-level English class, underscoring how the self-discipline required to be part of an orchestra—the focused attention required to master the instrument and play the right notes at the right time—is a transferable disposition, a change in mindset that trickles into some of the most important parts of students’ academic lives.
A Surprising Finding on Poverty
Meanwhile, intensive music training is transformative for kids in other unexpected ways. Two decades ago, the Harmony Project set out to bring high-quality music instruction to kids living in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Although the five hours per week of instrument instruction and mentoring began as a K–12 violence-prevention intervention, teachers soon noticed significant improvements in students’ academic lives. Students’ grades were going up—not a little, but a lot. Those who entered the program barely speaking English were earning As and enrolling in AP English classes a few years later. Kids who stuck with it for multiple years were graduating with honors, often the first in their families to go to college, with some attending schools like Harvard and Stanford.
In a study released in March 2022, Margaret Martin, the public health scholar who created the program, and a team of researchers compared groups of Harmony students and non-Harmony students in five high-poverty Title I elementary schools across Los Angeles. The results were exceptional: Harmony Project students vastly outperformed the nonmusician control group on standardized tests, with a 17-point gain in math and a 26-point gain in English. Students who started with the lowest achievement levels gained the most: an average of 33 points in math and 39 points in English.
Even Martin was shocked by the program’s impact. “What we appear to have is an after-school program that has resulted in significant improvement in math and reading scores,” Martin said. “This could change everything.”
Music training, Kraus says, helps the brain tune out the kind of brain noise often associated with the effects of poverty—what Kraus calls the “neural signature of poverty.” In a research project with Chicago Public Schools, Kraus and her team followed more than 200 ninth graders as they learned how to play instruments for the first time. They followed these late-to-the-game music students for five years, alongside a control group of students with similar reading ability and IQ who engaged only in fitness training. After two years, researchers found, “the neural responses of the music training group were faster than at pre-training, while the neural timing of students in the fitness training group was unchanged.”
The musicians’ brains had become stronger and faster in processing sound—specifically the kind that related to reading and language development. “The musician makes the sound clearer by processing key sound ingredients more effectively, thereby turning up the sound,” Kraus writes in Of Sound Mind. “Thus, making music partially offsets the poverty signature by strengthening the brain’s response to harmonics and crucial timing cues.”