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Professor sets up satellite lab to study music’s effects on the brain

Harmony Project and the study on brains

Music has been called many things: the food of love (Shakespeare), the only truth (Jack Kerouac), the strongest form of magic (Marilyn Manson).

But a swing ladder out of the most gang-ridden neighborhoods in America?

Well, yes. It would appear to be that, too.

For proof, look no further than the Harmony Project, an award-winning research-based non-profit that targets at-risk youth in underserved areas of Los Angeles. The program provides free instruments and musical tutoring to its young participants, in exchange for the promise that they stay in school, and it has been so successful (nearly all of its recent graduates have gone on to college) that President Obama awarded its founder, Margaret Martin, the Presidential Citizen’s Medal in 2011.

Martin wants to help kids, yes. But she also wants to understand the impacts that musical learning has on the brain. And, to this end, she enlisted the School of Communication’s Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Chair and professor of communication sciences, neurobiology, and physiology, and the director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

Harmony Project and the study on brains

While the staff at the Harmony Project are teaching kids tempo and how to nail a horn solo, Kraus and her colleagues are studying their brains.

“We’re interested in how musical experience impacts learning and communication abilities,” Kraus said.  “We assess children’s cognitive skills such as attention and memory. What is their language development? Their reading skill? How adept are they at hearing speech in noise? Because, let’s face it, classrooms are very, very noisy places.”

Kraus dispatched four of her researchers to Los Angeles and they have set up a satellite lab. She herself remains at Northwestern to scrutinize the daily stream of data the team sends back to the laboratory, and to oversee a very ambitious sister study whose test subjects are Chicago public school kids.

The work is unique, Kraus explained, because there is virtually no research on biological outcomes of music education delivered in school-based settings, where children are monitored year-after-year.  The outcomes promise to have high impact for informing the scientific bases of learning and educational policy.

Harmony Project participant

“Because these are underserved populations, we’re working with kids who’ve never had music lessons,” Kraus said. “So on the one hand it’s great, because they’re now getting that. And from a scientific standpoint, it’s an unprecedented level playing field.”

This Thursday, July 25, Kraus will be participating in a public webinar, hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts Federal Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development, to talk about the project. It is free and open to the public. Register online through