High school students who study music perform better at math, English, and science

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High school students who took at least one instrumental music course in their regular curriculum had a better academic track record than those who didn’t take any musical education. The findings suggest that skills learned in instrumental music may be transferred more broadly to other study activities at school.

“Learning to play a musical instrument and playing in an ensemble is very demanding,” said the study’s co-investigator Martin Guhn, an assistant professor at the University of British Colombia’s school of population and public health. “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, and more, play a role in enhancing the learner’s cognitive capacities, executive functions, motivation to learn in school, and self-efficacy.”

When schools are on a tight budget, one of the first budget cuts is to music programs. The reasoning is that students who devote time to music are likely to underperform at math, science, English, and other more practical disciplines. But new research from the University of British Columbia (UBC) says otherwise.

In their new study, the team led by Peter Gouzouasis, an education professor at UBC, analyzed data on more than 112,000 high school students who finished their senior year between 2012 and 2015. The participants included in the study completed at least one standardized exam for math, science, and English. The researchers also had rich demographic information at their disposal, including gender, ethnicity, neighborhood socioeconomic status, and prior learning in numeracy and literacy skills.

According to the findings, those who took a music course or became involved in a school-related musical activity, such as a concert band, conservatory piano, orchestra, jazz band, concert choir, or vocal jazz, scored significantly better on math, science and English exams than their non-musical peers. As measured by their exam grades, the musical students were about one academic year ahead of their non-music peers.

“Our research proved this belief wrong and found the more the students engage with music, the better they do in those subjects,” said Gouzouasis. “The students who learned to play a musical instrument in elementary and continued playing in high school not only score significantly higher, but were about one academic year ahead of their non-music peers with regard to their English, mathematics and science skills, as measured by their exam grades, regardless of their socioeconomic background, ethnicity, prior learning in mathematics and English, and gender.”

The relationship between music education and academic achievement was mediated by whether or not a student took courses in instrumental music rather than vocal music. As an increasing amount of schools have emphasized numeracy and literacy in favor of music, the researchers hope that these findings serve as a wakeup call for school administrators.

“Often, resources for music education—including the hiring of trained, specialized music educators, and band and stringed instruments—are cut or not available in elementary and secondary schools so that they could focus on math, science and English,” said Gouzouasis. “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—can be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.”

The study appeared in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

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