Music Education Can Make Students' Test Scores Sing

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on March 06, 2019
From the WebMD Archives
father son playing guitar

Want to give your child an edge in math and English? Enroll them in music lessons.

That's the takeaway of a recent study finding that elementary schoolers who studied an instrument for at least 18 months not only did better on tests of memory, planning, reasoning, focus, and self-control, they also vastly outperformed nonmusical peers on arithmetic, language, and IQ tests.

"Learning an instrument provides a full-brain workout, stimulating growth and building connections in various regions throughout the brain," says lead author Artur Jaschke, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Amsterdam. "Our study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that the cognitive skills developed during music lessons can influence children's abilities in completely unrelated subjects, too."

Parents and educators have long assumed that exposure to music is good for a child's brain, but research on its impact on academic performance has been mixed and controversial.

In 2007, a comprehensive review firmly debunked the "Mozart effect," concluding that merely listening to music cannot, as some had professed, make you smarter. While some research has shown that students who play an instrument do better on standardized tests, some studies have shown no link at all or have been criticized for being too short or too small.

With funding for arts education dwindling in the United States and Europe, Jaschke and his colleagues set out to "close the gap" with a larger, longer study.

They divided 150 children, ages 5 to 10, into four groups, providing some with structured music lessons that included learning an instrument in school or at home, some with visual arts classes, and some with no arts schooling. Then they followed them for 2½ years, giving them a battery of tests every 6 months.

Notably, there was little difference between groups after a year.

But after 18 months, the music groups started to score higher than the other children on cognitive tasks such as planning, memory, and problem solving. After 2½ years, the differences became pronounced, with those in the music groups also scoring 14% to 18% higher on arithmetic and language tests, and about 15 points higher on IQ tests, than the no-arts group.

Jaschke hopes such research will help demonstrate the broader value of music education.

"To play an instrument, you need to plan, have motor control, remember, exercise patience, and understand the emotions behind the music," he says. "In passively training all those brain areas, which can be really enjoyable, you build connections that can improve performance in many areas of life."

4 Tips

Jaschke suggests ways to turn your child on to music.

Start when they're babies. One recent study found that 9-month-old babies taught to tap out rhythms in time with music showed improvements in brain regions associated with detecting patterns and processing language.

Introduce instrument lessons by grade school. While listening to music has its benefits, playing an instrument produces more cognitive rewards, studies show. Starting between ages 5 and 12, when the brain is rapidly changing, can have the most impact.

Stick with it. Some benefits, including heightened academic test scores, don't kick in until after a child has played for a year.

Don't discriminate. Ask your child what instrument and what genre they are most interested in. Whether they play violin, piano, or guitar, or choose classical, jazz, or punk, the benefits are similar, says Jaschke.

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Show Sources


Frontiers in Neuroscience: "Longitudinal Analysis of Music Education on Executive Functions in Primary School Children."

Artur Jaschke, professor, music-based therapies and interventions; visiting fellow, cognitive neuroscience in music, University of Amsterdam.

Nature: "Mozart Doesn’t Make You Clever."

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: "Musical intervention enhances infants’ neural processing of temporal structure in music and speech."

Penn Medicine: "Playing an Instrument: Better for Your Brain than Just Listening."

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