Two decades ago, a team of scientists released a study documenting what they called the “Mozart effect.” They claimed that listening to classical music could boost a child's IQ. Although this study has since been disproven, recent research has begun to show that playing music offers mental benefits that just listening does not.

For example, a program called El Sistema in Venezuela found that children in community music programs were more likely to stay in school, perform well in school, and pursue college degrees than their peers who were not in the program.

Singing or playing an instrument activates a variety of brain regions, including those involved in physical coordination, auditory processing, and emotional processing. That’s exactly what researcher Nina Kraus found in a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

She partnered with Presidential Citizens Medal-winner Margaret Martin at the Harmony Project, a nonprofit organization that has offered music education to more than 1,000 low-income children in Los Angeles. The Harmony Project provides children with free instruments and musical instruction in exchange for the students’ promise to stay in school. Ninety-three percent of high school seniors in the program have graduated and continued on to college, even though local high school dropout rates are above 50 percent.

Learn More: The Importance of Music at a Young Age »

Kraus recruited 44 children from the Harmony Project’s waiting list, all of whom were motivated to learn music. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group began a two-year musical instruction program, while the second group joined the program after deferring for one year.

At the beginning of the study, at the one year mark, and at the two year mark, researchers measured the students’ neural responses in a difficult hearing test. Students had to distinguish between two syllables, “ba” and “ga.” (It’s called categorical perception, and it’s harder than it sounds — try telling “bad” from “bat” here.) This test predicts performance on a wider range of speech, language, and reading tasks.

Children who had studied music for one year didn’t show any improvements. But the children who had studied for two years were able to make larger, sharper, and cleaner distinctions between the two sounds. The effects were greatest among the children who had spent the most time in music training.

“In previous studies in my lab, we've discovered that poverty biologically impacts how the brain processes sound, and negative influences are seen in how children perform on cognitive and reading measures,” said Kraus, the Hugh Knowles professor of neurobiology, physiology, and otolaryngology and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, in an interview with Healthline. “Learning to make music appears to remodel children’s brains in ways that facilitate and improve their ability to learn.”

Read More About How Music Affects Your Mood »

More Music, More Learning?

The paper cautions that the effects of music training on children's brains were still quite small. Nonetheless, Kraus is excited about what her study means for the future of music education and research.

“We’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Policy makers need to be aware that music programs may actually be one of public education’s most cost-effective approaches to building stronger learners, including students highly at-risk for academic failure.”

“Learning to make music appears to remodel children’s brains in ways that facilitate and improve their ability to learn.” — Nina Kraus, Northwestern University

Robert Duke, Meyerson professor of Music and Human Learning at the University of Texas at Austin, thinks that using these study results to advocate for music classes in schools is impractical. “What often gets missed in this is [that] people look to these kinds of results to provide a rationale for music education and say, ‘This is why we should have children studying music,’” Duke told Healthline. “This isn’t at all why we ought to have children studying music.”

He explained, “If you want children’s auditory discrimination of speech sounds, the best way to do that is to have them make auditory discriminations about speech sounds, not music. Nobody’s saying ‘I want to learn the piano because I want to do better in math’ because it’d be much more effective and efficient to just hire a math tutor.”

Instead, he argues, music is valuable in and of itself. “Anyone who has gone through whatever level of effort to actually learn to play an instrument or learn to sing can report to you how gratifying they find that experience,” Duke said.

The Uncertain Future of Music Education

As schools are being held to new state and nationwide standards for student test scores, music budgets are frequently on the chopping block. Although access to music education was about the same in 1999 and 2009, the recent recession has hit hard. Between 2010 and 2011, the national Arts in Education program was slashed by about $9 million.

However, most funding for schools occurs at the state and local levels. Since the recession, at least 35 states are spending less per student to fund education than before the recession. As of 2012, 1.3 million elementary school students were without access to music education. A disproportionate percentage of these children struggle with poverty, as measured by their eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunches.

“Private music lessons are prohibitively expensive [for low-income children],” Kraus wrote in her paper.

Duke agrees with her that schools and other programs must step in to close this gap. “If there are families who can’t afford to provide [private music instruction] to their children, then schools should do that,” Duke said. “It’s a part of our culture.”

Discover Music Therapy for Depression »