Music participation doesn't appear to diminish performance in other schoolwork

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen school budgets are cut, programs in music and the arts are often the first to get axed. While this makes a certain amount of sense because music isn't always considered "essential" to education, recently in the U.S. we're starting to see another justification for cutting music out of schools. The No Child Left Behind Act demands that students meet a certain basic level of academic success, or a school's budget can be cut. "Extras" like music classes and recess only distract from the primary goals of learning English, math, science, and history, some say.

But does music participation actually cause students to do worse in the core academic subjects? Some studies have found the opposite, with kids' IQ scores improving after a year of music lessons. Other studies have found that students who participate in music tend to have higher grades and test scores in other subjects. This, however, is only a correlation--we don't know if music caused the improvement. Kids in music classes might be better in other subjects just because better students are more likely to take music classes. Maybe these kids would do even better in school if they weren't distracted by music.

Peter Miksza took a look at data from the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study to see if he could find stronger evidence of the impact of music on performance in school. He analyzed the records of 5,335 students who either participated in school music programs from 8th through 12th grade or did not participate at all (students who participated only part of the time were excluded from the analysis). Here are some of the results:


As expected, he found that math, reading, science, and social studies test scores were significantly better for the music participants. But he also found that socioeconomic status (SES) correlated with academic success. Perhaps SES could explain the entire difference in achievement between music students and non-music students.

So Miksza created several statistical models of the data that accounted for the SES of the students. Even after accounting for SES, in nearly every case, music students maintained their advantage over non-music students. The one exception was a small effect on reading scores: while music students had an advantage in reading scores, that advantage diminished over time. This could be due to a ceiling effect: the music students may have reached the limits of the test's ability to discern differences between students of different abilities. In all the other tests, the advantage of the music students was maintained from the 8th through the 12th grade.

A couple of caveats about this study. As Miksza takes pains to point out, it's not a controlled study; these results are only correlations, so we can't say whether overall achievement would improve if all students were required to participate in music, for example. Also, while there was a gap in achievement between the music students and non-music students, the size of this gap didn't change over the course of the study. How can we say that music participation helps improve academics if the music students were better in their other classes to begin with? Perhaps earlier music study (before 8th grade) leads to improved academic performance, while later music study only doesn't harm it. From this study alone, we don't know the answer. However, we do have some compelling evidence to suggest that removing music from the curriculum won't cause students to improve. Instead, it will only deprive those students of the many advantages they gain from having music in their lives.

Peter Miksza (2007). Music participation and socioeconomic status as correlates of change: A longitudinal analysis of academic achievement. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education (172), 41-57

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Alternatively, there could be other factors besides SES that correlate with music and academic performance. While I believe that music does enhance some aspects of cognitive function, it's not clear to me that it's the most efficient way to do so, compared to learning a foreign language or some other extracurricular activity.

I suspect that because music can be
fun and also deeply uplifting and fulfilling
might have something to do with it.
Could it also stretch the mind in different
ways providing some essential brain variety?

By TheBlindWatcher (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

Music is worth studying purely for itself. It brings benefits which are worth having regardless of its effect on other studies. The idea of evicting it from schools is appalling. What are we trying to teach kids, that nothing that cannot be turned to a profit is worth knowing about?

By Janet Holmes (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

To Hao: You say that perhaps learning a foreign language might be a more efficient way to improve cognitive function. I ask you: What is music but another foreign language that uses symbols to provide meaning? This is not to mention the copious amounts of Italian/German/French/etc. words and phrases that are present in most music.

While I suspect that the general thesis that music does not impair academic performance is indeed correct, I don't really find this study all that convincing. Perhaps parents who are particularly involved with their kids' academics both encourage their children to participate in music and to succeed in school. Perhaps children who are good at music are also simply good at academics (a likely possibility considering the oft-cited correlation between musical and mathematical ability). I would find a controlled experiment much more convincing.

Dave, did the experiment control for other factors besides SES?

The kids who leave classes to study music have to catch up.

Do they do this by getting notes from the teacher and studying in their own time in a space that perhaps isn't as disruptive as a classroom?

Or perhaps there is just so much repetition that missing the odd class makes little difference, perhaps the benefit is in not having to hear everything twice.

I've always found music to be a useful memory aid. I find it easy to memorise a long list if I can create a tune to go with the words.

Perhaps students who study music don't require as much repetition.

I'm sure there must be some interesting stats on this sort of thing from El Sistema...

Hmmm... during my school days in India, our language teacher (tamizh- which is a dravidian language) always used music to teach us language... so all our old literature, instead of reading it out, we use to sing it and by the end of the hour we all had it in our memories... (even the averagely performing students!)

And personally i always found myself very fast with my maths homework when there is music playing around(which my mom never approved off anyway!).

But if it comes to whether learning Music is good for brain than learning languages or the other way around, i think it depends on whether there is any reward pathway involved/evoked!

Could the differences in the study be explained by a selection bias? High achieving, motivated students may be selected for music programs because they are more likely to succeed. I suspect that in public school programs where resources are limited, students who are thought to be the most likely to succeed are given access to music instruction.

By James Sucich (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

When I was in high school, I was excused from some required music courses because I took extra advanced level biology courses. (Don't ask me how the authorities thought up that policy.) So whether or not selection bias is in effect, or how it works, would depend upon the policies of the school.

People who enroll in hard electives are much more likely to want to learn. It's not much of a surprise that the subset of students who want to learn do better across all subjects.

By David Wile (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Music brings to the table experiences in collaboration, timing, and can be a very effective stress reliever. While I agree that there may not be a necessary correlation between music and math/science, I would lean toward that idea. I played in HS and went on to study math and engineering in college. Not terribly uncommon. I get agitated when I hear schools want to cut music and art but leave the football program. If you think about it, 5-10 minutes of a news broadcast is spent on sports and 0 minutes on music or art, unless it's a special coverage story. This exhibits us our social mentality toward the physical over the intellectual. And I = $$$.

Now that weâve discussed why studying music might improve performance in other areas, it would be good to consider the origin of the idea that it could make performance in other areas worse â why this experiment was done in the first place. There seems to be a belief that a developing brain is like a bucket that can only hold a finite amount of knowledge â if you study too much of one thing, it will overflow and the other things that youâve learned will spill out.

For example, there is a myth that has been held by some that if a child is raised to speak two languages, their ability to speak, read and write either language well will be limited. This is why some immigrants to the US in the early part of the twentieth century wanted their children and grandchildren to avoid speaking the language of their home country; they thought it would make learning English more difficult. (I speak from personal experience.)

I totally agree with Marcia on that. And also it's good to remember that there is a huge difference in the thinking/learning skills used for music rather than (say) science. After a day trying to get my head around chemotaxis music can help, rather than hinder my learning efforts.