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A Major New Study Confirms the Academic Benefits of Music Education

Research on 112,000 Canadian students finds that high schoolers who took more music courses did better in math, science, and English.
music education

The notion that music education is an expendable frill has yet to die, even as the research showing a link between musical training and academic achievement keeps getting stronger.

The headlines just keep coming. "School Budget Cuts Put Music, Theater Programs in Jeopardy." "Marching Band Turns Out to Protest Possible Music Cuts."

Those pieces were both posted within the past week—as was a Stars and Stripes story reporting that, owing to budget cuts, the children of American military personnel stationed in Okinawa, Japan, will no longer be able to study piano or guitar.

Clearly, the notion that music education is an expendable frill has yet to die, even as the research showing a link between musical training and academic achievement keeps getting stronger. In February, that association was demonstrated in a rigorous study of 30,000 Miami middle-schoolers.

Now it has been confirmed in an even larger (and open-access) study of 112,000 students in British Columbia. The latest study finds that high schoolers who take music courses have higher test scores than their peers in three core subjects.

"It is believed that students who spend school time in music classes, rather than further developing their skills in math, science, and English classes, will underperform in those disciplines," said Peter Gouzouasis, senior author of the University of British Columbia study. "Our research suggests that, in fact, the more they study music, the better they do in those subjects."

The study, in the Journal of Educational Psychology, analyzed data on more than 112,000 students in British Columbia who started first grade between the years 2000 and 2003. Approximately 13 percent of them had participated in at least one rigorous music course in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. (The researchers did not count general music or guitar classes, since these required no musical experience—and, in the case of general music, did not involve making music.)

The researchers compared the scores of musicians and non-musicians on standardized math, science, and English tests taken in the 10th or 12th grade. They found a pronounced pattern.

"Public secondary-school students who took school music courses, on average, outperformed their peers who took no school music courses," they report. "Participating in instrumental music appears to be particularly beneficial."

Further analysis found the more music courses a student took, and the higher their grades were in music class, the better they tended to do on the math, science, and English tests. In fact, those who took the most music classes "were, on average, over one year ahead in their math, English, and science skills compared with those whose peers were not engaged in school music."

The caveat appended to all studies of this subject is that it's impossible to prove causation. It's conceivable, for example, that smarter, more inquisitive kids—those who would do well in school regardless—are also more likely to pursue music.

In this study, however, "We went beyond mere correlation analyses to do regression analyses that strongly show that music achievement predicts academic achievement in math, science, and English, and not the other way around," Gouzouasis tells Pacific Standard. "In other words, 'smarter, more inquisitive kids' who have high grades in math, for example, do not necessarily have high grades in music."*

Further, the researchers found that the association between music education and higher test scores remained strong even after taking into account such factors as each student's socioeconomic status, gender, and cultural background. This suggests the findings are "not solely an artifact of a certain demographic of students selecting school music courses."

Are you paying attention, school boards?

"Often resources for music education—including the hiring of trained, specialized music educators—are cut or not available in elementary and secondary schools," Gouzouasis said in announcing the findings.

"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."

*Update—June 26th, 2019: This story has been updated to reflect the full range of analysis pursued by the researchers.