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updated: 3/17/2014 9:08 AM

Music education pays off in other areas

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Yes, the junior was meeting the many academic challenges of her AP classes, but it was the "song and dance" of the school's fine arts program that had captured her heart and was helping create one truly unforgettable high school experience.

Senior year registration was looming, and our student was in a real bind. With so much on her plate, including several advanced college-prep classes and one last state-required nonacademic course, her much loved music participation was in peril.

After three years of deep involvement in both band and chorus, there appeared to be room for only one music class on the girl's already crowded senior schedule. Would she really be forced to abandon band or cut chorus? And, would her parents go to bat for the motivated student in her musical quest to do it all?

Why, from both a scientific and an educational angle, would her mother and father feel this musical dilemma was even worth a second thought?

Well, the two had kept a close eye on their child's academic progress through the years and were firmly convinced that music had helped their daughter develop discipline and focus in and out of the classroom. They were also happy to discover that as their student ramped up her musical involvement in high school, she actually began to excel in math class as well.

In a letter to leaders in education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explains that federal law defines the arts as a core subject, and states, "The arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers who are confident and able to think creatively."

A national report by the College Entrance Examination Board also finds that music performance students score 57 points higher on the verbal SAT section and 41 points higher on math than peers who do not participate in the arts.

Researchers are careful to point out that it is difficult to prove music education directly causes a change in student performance, however, multiple scientific studies show a strong association between music participation and positive neurological, educational, and social outcomes.

"Knowledge of music is multidimensional," explain Rohani Omar and colleagues in the journal Brain, "involving abstract objects (compositions, notes), emotions as represented in music, physical sources (instruments), and symbols (musical notation)."

In a study published in Psychology of Music, New York researchers Joseph M. Piro and Camilo Ortiz find that after three years of formal piano instruction, students have "significantly better" vocabulary and verbal sequencing scores than children of the same age with no past music lessons.

Writing a chapter in the 2013 textbook "The Psychology of Music," university professors Laurel J. Trainor and Erin E. Hannon perform an extensive review of the musical development literature, and uncover an association between formal music training and enhanced verbal memory.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two researchers discover that "musicians are also particularly good at understanding speech presented in a noisy environment."

Noting a stronger brainstem encoding response for musicians placed in such distracting conditions, the authors feel the evidence suggests that musicians are better able to tune in pertinent musical and verbal information while tuning out "irrelevant noise."

A recent research report by the National Endowment for the Arts also links high levels of arts involvement with improved academic and civic outcomes among socially and economically disadvantaged young people.

In his opening notes, NEA chairman Rocco Landesman comments, "I firmly believe that when a school delivers the complete education to which every child is entitled -- an education that very much includes the arts -- the whole child blossoms."

Here's hoping our high school student finds a way to continue her musical journey.

• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

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