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.”
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.
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.