Menus Subscribe Search
learning-music

(PHOTO: AFRICA STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New Evidence Links Music Education, Higher Test Scores

• August 26, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: AFRICA STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Research from Canada finds high-performing students do even better if they are enrolled in ongoing music classes.

Does studying music boost students’ overall test scores? Recent research casts doubt on that belief, concluding that the link between music education and good grades appears to reflect the impressive nature of the students who study music, rather than an intrinsic effect of the lessons themselves.

But a new study from Canada suggests music lessons may in fact have wide-ranging intellectual benefits. It finds that, among a group of high-performing high school students, grades were consistently higher for those who continued music classes compared to those who dropped them after two years of compulsory training.

It is possible that the kids who stay with the music lessons were the smartest and most motivated of this smart, motivated group.

In the journal Behavioural Brain Research, a team led by Leonid Perlovsky of Harvard University describes a study featuring 180 secondary school students in Quebec. Based on their excellence in elementary school, all were selected for an International Baccalaureate program, meaning they were “among the top grade level of their school.” During their first two years of secondary school, music education was compulsory. For the final three years, music courses were optional; the students had their choice of music, drama, or painting/sculpture classes.

The researchers recorded the students’ academic performance in their full range of classes, including science, math, history, and foreign languages. The results for the kids’ final three years of schooling were quite striking.

“Each year,” Perlovsky and his colleagues report, “the mean grades of the students that had chosen a music course in their curriculum were higher than those of the students that had not chosen music as an optional course.”

This proved true nearly across the board. Of the 25 courses rated, there were only two exceptions in which non-music students performed better (in each case marginally).

Perlovsky and his colleagues concede these results do not prove or disprove causality. It is possible that the kids who stay with the music lessons were the smartest and most motivated of this smart, motivated group. But given the kids’ uniformly “high initial achievements,” it seems at least as likely that the music courses provided intellectual and/or emotional benefits, which showed up in the form of higher test scores.

As we’ve noted previously, Perlovsky and his colleagues believe that music’s value, from an evolutionary perspective, revolves around its ability to help people cope with cognitive dissonance—that intense feeling of discomfort that arises when we encounter information that contradicts one of our core beliefs.

According to their hypothesis, the ability to live with such feelings allows us to be open to fresh, challenging ideas, leading to intellectual and emotional growth. This process, they argue, is “fundamental to human evolution,” and a likely reason music became so ubiquitous.

This intriguing argument is difficult if not impossible to prove definitively. Another line of thinking suggests music proved beneficial to early humans because of its ability to cement social bonds.

But are those ideas opposed? It’s conceivable that kids who feel socially connected (say, as members of a school band) develop the confidence and self-esteem that can lead to intellectual curiosity, and better grades. Another study, perhaps?

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.