northwestern university

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    Perspective: Advocacy Ammo Incoming

    Mike Lawson | September 17, 2014

    So, how’s that national conversation about the impact of music education going?

    If Internet search results are any indication, there may be sunny days ahead for music advocates, teachers, and directors, even those whose school programs are under siege by budget-focused administrators looking to wield the proverbial axe.

    A recent search for “music education” in Google’s “News” search bar yielded the following headlines:

    Study: Music Education Could Help Close The Achievement Gap ... (Huffington Post-Sep 2, 2014)

  • An Introduction to Researching Music and the Brain

    Mike Lawson | October 12, 2012

    Part 1: An Introduction to Researching Music and the Brain


    Two pioneers in the field of researching how music impacts the brain are Dr. Nina Kraus and Dr. Aniruddh Patel. SBO recently spoke with these two scientists to discuss their work and its broad implications on music education.

    Nina Kraus plays the electric guitar, some bass, and a bit of drums. She is also a professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University, where she heads the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

    "There's so much work to be done," says Kraus. "I don't need to tell music educators how important music is, not only for the sake of music but also for helping kids become better learners. However, there aren't a lot of visible scientific outcomes in education in general, and there aren't a lot of ironclad results that show the effect that the musical experience has on the nervous system. The work that my lab does, along with the work of others in the field, can hopefully provide some of the evidence that the educators and policy makers can use to get more resources for more music."

    Kraus's studies of the impact that music has on various cognitive abilities have been published in some of the world's leading scientific journals. This summer, Kraus published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience titled "A Little Goes A Long Way," touting the lasting brain benefits of even a relatively small amount of musical study. In that experiment, which received significantf media attention, Kraus measured the brain's response to sound among 45 students at Northwestern University and determined that people with even a small amount of musical training were "better at processing sound" than those with no musical training.


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    Practice Makes Perfect

    Mike Lawson | October 6, 2008

    When you are listening to a recording or hearing a live performance of someone playing your primary instrument, do you feel yourself at a heightened state of attention? Are you more likely to listen extremely carefully for nuances of tone quality, intonation, and musicality? Do you almost feel yourself fingering imaginary notes on your instrument? Does this happen spontaneously when you happen to walk into a restaurant or theatre and hear the sounds of your instrument wafting through the air? On the other hand, if you happen to be a trombone player or saxophonist, for example, do you feel the same level of sensitivity when listening to a bassoon or violin concerto? Most likely not, and now there is research that provides support to this theory.

    A recent study authored by assistant professor of Music at the University of Arkansas, Elizabeth Margulis, along with colleagues from Northwestern University, peered into the reaction of the neurons in the human mind to musical impulses via MRI scans. The study included classically trained violinists and flutists who listened to recordings of familiar Bach Partitas performed on their own instruments as well as on other instruments and found that "there were more extensive and complex neural responses to music played on their instrument of expertise than on another instrument." The expected result, according to Margulis in an online article in Health News (, was that "the difference between the two groups should be minimal. Both have a lot of experience with classical music." The responses, however, were significantly different, as the MRIs indicated that "many more areas of the [participants] brain were engaged" when listening to their own instrument.

    This study differs from others that have compared and contrasted people with musical training and those without, and showed differing reactions in their brains. Margulis' study supports the concept that training and "practice, practice, practice" is what ultimately improves performance, rather than a genetic predisposition towards musical ability. This data certainly counters the widely held notion that many of us have taken as a truth, which is that if your grandparents, parents, and siblings were fine musicians, you were more likely to become a capable musician, as well. Studies like this may eventually provide insight into improved methods of teaching students with all types of backgrounds and skill levels.

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