For years, experts have touted the strong connection between a child’s cognitive development and music. Now, a new study in the Journal of Youth Development confirms the power of instrumental instruction and mentoring in significantly improved test scores for elementary students after two years in the program.

What’s more, the greatest gains were made by students with the lowest prior levels of achievement. Joshua Barlage, managing director for the Des Moines Symphony Academy said this most recent publication, coming out of UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and part of the Harmony Project, is an example of what can be done to increase achievement levels in urban and low-income areas.

 “Continued research that measures the effectiveness of music education among different pockets of the population furthers our mission to enrich, educate and inspire our community by performing great orchestral music,” Barlage said. “Since 2003, the Des Moines Symphony Academy has been putting stringed instruments and trained musicians in the lives of children across central Iowa.”

The article also highlights the importance mentorship plays in the role of mental health and well-being of study participants, stating, “School leaders report that the intervention also effectively addresses students’ pandemic-related social and emotional needs.”

While the Harmony Project was developed in 2001 in under-resourced Los Angeles-area school districts, and has been used as a template in other school districts across the world, no Iowa schools implement it. Barlage said that only furthers the importance of programs like the Academy, where, in a typical year, approximately 600 students participate.

The Academy is funded through the generosity of donors and foundations, making scholarships available for Academy students who use them for tuition, private lessons, ensembles, camps and special programs.  

“Here in Des Moines, the Academy offers the life-changing experience of learning to play a stringed instrument under the direction of our expert musicians,” Barlage said. “To be reaffirmed our work is mirroring that of nationally renowned studies speaks to the great efforts happening in our community to improve the lives of youth through music education.”