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The Academic Benefits of Music Outweigh Sports

But engaging in both activities produces even better educational outcomes, according to a new German study.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Douglas Pimentel/Flickr)

A deal of research has found that adolescents benefit from both studying music and playing sports. But pursuing such extracurricular activities on top of schoolwork and other responsibilities can be both expensive and time consuming.

If a student is attracted to both, but must choose one or the other, which is the better option?

A first-of-its-kindstudy suggests that if stronger educational outcomes are your goal, music is the better choice. But playing sports also has its benefits — and participating in both appears to be even more academically advantageous.

The study, published in the journal Labour Economics, was conducted by Charlotte Cabane and Michael Lechner of the Swiss Institute for Empirical Economic Research, along with Adrian Hille of the German Institute for Economic Research. They used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel, which provides “a wealth of information” on adolescents and their families.

For most measures, they used a sample of 3,835 17-year-olds, comparing the profiles of those who participate in sports with those who play music.

“The main results indicate that music and sports may indeed have quite different implications,” the researchers conclude. While participating in sports “improves adolescents’ subjective health,” playing music “appears to foster academic performance, and academic ambition, more than doing sports, in particular for girls and children from more highly educated families.”

Music and sports should, at the very least, be on an equal footing.

“Adolescents who engage in music (as opposed to sports) spend less time watching TV or playing computer games, but more reading books,” they note.

“Musically active adolescents obtain better school grades in languages. This tendency of music leading to better skills exists for most school-achievement and cognitive-skills variables.”

Most, but not all. Surprisingly, the results show sports participants did better in math than music students, although the degree of difference was not statistically significant.

Further analysis produced indications that “doing both activities jointly is more beneficial than just a single one.” In a standard cognitive-skills test, for example, adolescents playing both music and sports outperform those who only participate in one or the other.

“Engaging in both activities, music and sports, improves educational outcomes (more than playing music alone), and reduces smoking by about 10 percentage points, compared to engaging in just one,” the researchers report.

So parents whose kids are on both the soccer team and the school band need not worry that they’re hurting themselves academically. “Quite the opposite,” the researchers conclude.

“Since better academic performance, as well as better health, usually improve future labor-market success (and life satisfaction), parents and children have to consider their preferences with respect to those outcomes when choosing between music and sports,” they add. “Our study does not imply favoring one activity over the other with regard to public funds.”

Well, OK, except that in American schools, art and music departments are much more likely than sports programs to have their importance questioned, and their budgets squeezed. This research suggests music and sports should, at the very least, be on an equal footing.