Study: Music classes help improve literacy skills in low-income children

School budget cuts have often resulted in fewer music and art classes being offered to children, and students from low-income backgrounds are even more likely to be affected by these budget cuts. However, results of a recent research study suggest that cutting music classes may be more detrimental to children’s education than previously thought.

Past research has found that music training has been associated with enhanced language development and educational outcomes for children. Some researchers have suggested that music training helps children’s brain development, benefiting their language skills. However, the reasons for this association are not yet clear.

To address this, researchers at Northwestern University sought out to see how music classes benefit children’s literacy. Using a randomized controlled study design, 6- to 9-year-old children from low socioeconomic status backgrounds were randomly placed into either a music class, or a control condition without music training.

At the beginning of the study, the music class group and the control group were no different in their reading abilities. After one year though, children in the music class showed greater reading abilities than children who did not participate in the music class. In fact, the reading abilities of children who did not take music classes actually slowed, falling below the average reading level for their age group. The researchers suggested these outcomes “provide evidence that music programs may have value in helping to counteract the negative effects of low-socioeconomic status on child literacy development.”

The results of this research provide further support for the benefits of music education programs on children’s development, suggesting that the benefits of music education extend into other areas of learning. These benefits may be even greater for children from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, who are already at a greater risk of decreased educational achievement when compared with their high socioeconomic status peers.

The majority of preexisting research in this area has been correlational, testing children’s literacy skills and music education at only one point in time. This study was one of the first longitudinal studies within this area of research, which tests children at the beginning and end of the program, allowing us conclude that music education truly does cause these benefits.

The findings were reported in the journal PLoS One.

“This knowledge can help to inform the development of music programs to provide maximum benefit for individuals and communities in terms of personal, social and academic as well as artistic development,” the researchers suggested. These findings support the idea that music education programs can help educators counteract some of the disadvantages children from low-income backgrounds face.