Study aims to judge music’s role in learning

The USC Brain and Creativity Center, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and Heart of Los Angeles joined forces for a groundbreaking research project, USC announced Monday.

The study, titled “Effects of Early Childhood Musical Training on Brain and Cognitive Development” will follow students in an intense music program in order to track their learning and brain function.

Researchers will study two groups of 40 first graders over the course of five years. The children will all be of similar socio-economic background and cognitive ability to start, but one group will be in the HOLA music program and the other will not. Each year, the students will be given psychological and behavioral tests, as well as brain scans to track the physical and functional aspects of the brain.

Dr. Assal Habibi of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute and Beatriz Ilari of the Thornton School of Music will work directly with the children and their families and collect the data. They will be assisted by graduate students and research assistants and supervised by Professors Hanna and Antonio Damasio, directors of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute and the Dornsife Neuroimaging Institute at USC.

Habibi, herself a musician as well as a neuroscientist, said she hopes the survey will help uncover the effects of music education in terms of not only academics, but also social and emotional development and cognitive abilities.

“We are looking to discover what, systematically, difference does it make in the lives of these children,” Habibi said.

HOLA, a nonprofit organization that offers free after-school programs for underprivileged youth in art, sports and academics, already has a partnership with the LA Philharmonic — The Youth Orchestra LA. YOLA, which is in its third year, serves 240 local students ages six to 14, with most attending 15 hours of music class per week. The children are admitted as first graders, and must make a commitment to the program and to upholding their values.

Officials approached HOLA and YOLA directors last spring about the survey, and they were immediately intrigued.

“When I saw who was going to be involved, I thought it was going to be incredible,” HOLA Executive Director Tony Brown said. “This will be groundbreaking for the field.”

Similar studies have been made previously, but none over such a long period of time. The unique aspect of this survey is that the training is done as an ensemble. Most research projects study merely musical training and lessons, while YOLA adds another layer of working on music in a more social environment.

Habibi is looking forward to seeing how this type of training influences social development, as well as recognition of emotions.

Brown feels that this partnership is very exciting, as all three groups are leaders in their prospective fields.

“This study will be great for all of us, but even greater for society as a whole,” Brown said. YOLA staff hopes the survey will not only help their own publicity, but also help with promoting music education nationwide.

Many parents with children in the YOLA program agree, and have been extremely supportive of the study. Some children who will be participating in the survey have siblings who have been with YOLA since its start three years ago.

“Many families are excited about the opportunity to help students around the country have access to music education,” YOLA Director Christine Witkowski said.

The staff at HOLA have already formed their own theories about the impact of music education, but they are hoping to obtain concrete evidence.

“We do surveys among students, and from the start of year to the end we see more willingness to try new things, a stronger sense of self esteem, more resilience and better general focus,” Witkowski said. “They have a passion for working with others, sharing with others and caring about others.”

Madeline Myers, a volunteer with YOLA who has worked as a music director for USC student productions, has made similar discoveries in her time teaching music.

“The goal of music education, particularly for disadvantaged youth, is to be the positive item in their lives that motivates them to stay in school, work hard, pursue their dreams, cultivate their passions, engage with the community and the world, and so much more,” Myers said.

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