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Music participation in high school linked to higher scores on English, math and science exams

The study found that students who had participated in music courses consistently scored higher on English, math and science exams than their peers who took no music courses.

Students who take music courses in high school tend to perform significantly better on math and science exams than their non-musical peers, no matter what their socioeconomic backgrounds, according to a large Canadian study published this week in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

The effect was observed among all types of high school music students, although it was stronger among those who played an instrument than among those who sang.

The findings suggest that schools should be encouraging rather than eliminating music programs, the study’s authors say.

“In public education systems in North America, arts courses, including music courses, are commonly underfunded in comparison with what are often referred to as academic courses, including math, science and English,” says Peter Gouzouasis, the study’s senior author and a professor of music education at the University of British Columbia, in a released statement. “It is believed that students who spend school time in music classes, rather than in further developing their skills in math, science and English classes, will underperform in those disciplines. Our research suggests that, in fact, the more they study music, the better they do in those subjects.”

Study details

For the study, Gouzouasis and his colleagues examined the academic records for more than 112,000 young people attending public schools in British Columbia. All had started the first grade between 2000 and 2003, had completed their last three years of high school and had taken at least one standardized test for English, math or science. The researchers also had demographic information for the students, including their socioeconomic status (determined by the neighborhood in which they lived).

About 13 percent of those students had taken at least one music course during their time in high school that required performing and practicing music, such as concert band, jazz band, conservatory piano, concert choir or vocal jazz.

The study found that students who had participated in these courses consistently scored higher on English, math and science exams than their peers who took no music courses. And the higher their level of involvement in music, the higher their exam scores were likely to be.

“Those associations were more pronounced for those who took instrumental music rather than vocal music,” adds Gouzouasis. “On average, the children who learned to play a musical instrument for many years, and were now playing in high school band and orchestra, were the equivalent of about one academic year ahead of their peers with regard to their English, mathematics and science skills, as measured by their exam grades.”

Students from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to take music lessons (both inside and outside of school). They are also more likely to score higher on standardized tests. So the researchers adjusted the data to control for this factor.

The findings still held.

Limitations and implications

This study is observational, so it can’t prove a direct causal relationship between taking a music course in high school and scoring higher on English, math and science tests. Other factors not controlled for in the study may also explain the results. (The parents of children who are involved in music classes in high school may have a parenting style that leads to higher academic achievement, for example.)

Also, the database used in the study only identified students who took music classes in schools. Some students may have been involved in private music instruction outside of school.

Nor was the study able to measure the quality of the music lessons offered in the schools.

Any of those factors that may have influenced the study’s results.

Still, Gouzouasis and his co-authors say there are good reasons to believe that the skills children learn from studying music are transferrable to their studies in other subjects.

“Learning to play a musical instrument and playing in an ensemble is very demanding,” Gouzouasis points out. “A student has to learn to read music notation, develop eye-hand-mind coordination, develop keen listening skills, develop team skills for playing in an ensemble and develop discipline to practice. All those learning experiences play a role in enhancing children’s cognitive capacities and their self-efficacy.”

“Often, resources for music education — including the hiring of trained, specialized music educators, and band and orchestral instruments — are cut or not available in elementary and secondary schools,” Gouzouasis adds. “The irony is that music education — multiple years of high-quality instrumental learning and playing in a band or orchestra or singing in a choir at an advanced level — may be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the website for the Journal of Educational Psychology. The journal is a publication of the American Psychological Association.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Misty Martin on 06/27/2019 - 11:57 am.

    I can truly believe this study. Music engages the brain in ways that no other subject/activity can. I’ve heard that good musicians are also good at math. Both of my sons studied the piano, both were in band and one played the guitar in church. They both did well in their studies – not geniuses, mind you, but both were good students.

    I love music myself, although I play no instrument and cannot read music, which I really wish I could. I did try to take piano lessons a few years back, but years of singing solos by ear, made it hard for me get the timing down as I needed to, and I found that my hands were not dexterous enough either, being an older adult. Children are so nimble.

    At any rate, I believe nearly every child could benefit from some sort of music appreciation, if it could be encouraged easily enough. I would think that if parents themselves showed an appreciation for music, which I know was shown in our home, that children will naturally gravitate toward the type of music that they find enjoyable.

    I believe studies have been done to also show that music helps with pain management and I know it helps with an exercise routine. Music is one of God’s greatest blessings to mankind.

  2. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 06/27/2019 - 03:42 pm.

    So surprised you do not know about the Minneapolis Public Schools’ study on this very topic. Except it was a very practical study. One of the elementary school in South Minneapolis added a half four of music every day to all students. What happened was really dramatic. On the average, at the end of the year, the reading and math scores went up two grade levels. If it was anything else, they would be funding something that successful. In my family we have athletics and musical theater. Many intelligent people in my family. Many of my nieces and nephews received full scholarships in college. At the age of 5 I could read and write and at grade 8 they had to send me to the college library to challenge me in English. I was at the senior in high school level in English. We had music from day one in our household. A number of of my siblings scored high in math and obtained math scholarships. One of my nieces was good in athletics, but she was also great in musical theater. She delivered the address at graduation in high school as valedictorian of the class. Not surprised at all.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/29/2019 - 10:40 am.

    A few years ago there was a “failing” school in Manchester, England with a largely immigrant population. The conventional wisdom here and in the UK is that such schools need intensive drills in reading and math, with other subjects shoved aside.

    Fortunately, this school was assigned an innovative headmaster, who made just one change in the curriculum: he added daily music lessons for all students.

    Within a couple of years, that school went from being one of the worst-performing schools in Manchester to being one of the best.

    I once heard an ethnomusicologist say that anthropologists have never found a culture that did not have some kind of music, some conventional ways of manipulating pitch and rhythm for singing or dancing. Even the cultures that ban secular music and dancing have culturally acceptable religious music or chanting.

    This suggests that music, like language, is a fundamental trait of humanity, and whether singing or playing an instrument, it involves our minds, bodies, and emotions.

  4. Submitted by Karen Olson on 06/30/2019 - 07:55 am.

    Over the years as a music educator, the question always surfaced was this: Does studying music make kids smarter or do smart kids study music?

    I discovered early on that all kids have talent. For some, it is the reason they show up at school at all. For others, music can be their life-line to success, no matter what discipline they choose.

    There is no other class in school that prepares a student for real-life than participating in a music ensemble. Working together (rehearsing) to produce a positive result (concert performance) gives students of all abilities a sense of accomplishment.

    It is not only the students who go on to become professional musicians who are the winners here. All students of all abilities are able to benefit by participating in the arts.

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