Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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