A study published on June 24 in the Journal of Educational Psychology reports that students committed to instrumental or choral music see an improvement in their grades in comparison to their nonmusical peers.
Professors Peter Gouzouasis, Martin Guhn, and Scott Emerson analyzed exam results in English, math, and science of all students who graduated from B.C. public schools between 2012 and 2015, making up a sample size of over 112,000 students.
Paying attention to other variables that might have skewed the data such as socioeconomic background, previous learning in these subjects, ethnicity, and gender, the researchers discovered that regardless of these factors, musicians performed better on final exams.
“The students who learned to play a musical instrument in elementary and continued playing in high school not only score significantly higher, but were about one academic year ahead of their non-music peers with regard to their English, mathematics and science skills,” said Gouzouasis.
The study found that participation in musical programs decreased each year from 2012 to 2015, dropping 4.8 percent to a total of 23 percent of all students being involved in any form of music program.
However, participation in any form of music education saw grades at least 2.5 percent higher than those of nonmusical peers on average, with the highest average difference of 3.8 percent in the area of sciences.
The researchers additionally found that students who participated in instrumental music programs saw a greater increase in their academic performance than those in vocal music.
The study argues that the dedication and focus associated with learning an instrument offer a greater challenge than what a singer faces while training their voice, due to the added degree of training hand-eye coordination and typically more advanced requirements in understanding music theory.
Students in instrumental music programs scored a minimum of 1.4 percent higher on their exam scores in comparison to those in vocal music, though their scores in mathematics were on average nearly five percent higher.
Challenges like these help students develop what the researchers call “executive functions”, or EFs—“cognitive abilities [that] focus on control and regulation of behaviours and thoughts”.
EFs also help with forming good study habits, as the self-efficacy and discipline learned while extensively practising an instrument can help develop a similar mindset that a student would need while studying for an exam. Mastering an instrument also presents a cumulative learning process, much like a structured course syllabus.
The study goes on to argue for the social benefit of participating in musical programs at school, stating that showcasing musical pieces can improve self-esteem and motivation, and that being in a close-knit group of similarly minded people can improve overall morale, both of which can contribute to better academic performance.
The researchers hope that their findings will alert school boards to stop making cuts to arts programs. They’re usually the first to go when schools are searching for funds, due to their perceived lack of importance, but the researchers argue that participation in music actually serves to prepare students for effective learning in other, more academic areas.
“These findings contradict notions of an opportunity cost conferred by taking music courses, which is commonly communicated in school policy debates,” concluded the study.
“Often, resources for music education are cut so that they could focus on math, science and English,” says Gouzouasis. “The irony is that music education can be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically.”