The Academic Benefits of an Education in Music

Apr 7, 2015

Over the last few weeks we’ve spent an awful lot of time talking about some pretty specific topics. We’ve recently looked at methods for over coming stage fright. We’ve looked at reasons for buying or renting a new instrument. We’ve even looked into picking the right instrument for yourself or your child. But now, with spring just starting to show its sunny face on this part of the world, it’s time to take a step back and look at things a little broader. This week, instead of telling you about the history of this kind of music, or what you can learn from playing that genre, we’re going to to take a look at music as a whole, and the benefits an education, any kind of education, in music can give a student. It doesn’t matter if your child is the next Jimi Hendrix or Taylor Swift, or if their guitar solos are only of the “air” variety, research has shown, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that an education in music goes well beyond learning to play and read notes.

First it is important to understand that learning music teaches much more than just music. Research has found time and time again that learning music creates a solid foundation for learning other subjects, and in fact helps to enhance skills in these other areas as well. The act of making music is much more complicated than it at first seems. It involves so much more than just the voice or fingers. There are so many different things going on at once. Someone performing a musical piece uses their eyes, their ears, large muscles in their diaphragm, small muscles in their face and hands. This ability to perform multiple tasks at once can become a framework for other important learning opportunities. As Kenneth Guilmartin, co-founder of Music Together, a music development program built for infants and kindergartners, says, “Music learning supports all learning. Not that Mozart makes you smarter, but it’s a very integrating, stimulating pastime or activity.”

One specific area that Guilmartin is alluding to is language development. All human children come into the world with an innate ability to decode sounds and begin to learn language, and an education in music can help to enhance this natural talent. Learning to decode music and its notes practices this ability, while also reinforcing it. And with the beautiful melody that is produced, learning to play music also celebrates a child’s natural abilities. Recent studies have even shown that musical training actually causes the part of the brain involved with language processing to develop differently. It literally wires the brain in different and specific ways. What this results in is that when new information is linked to familiar songs the new information is more readily absorbed, processed, and understood by young minds. This ends up being a two way street as well; as a child develops language skills, the portion of their brain that help to process music also develops. Dr. Kyle Pruett, a professor of child psychology at Yale School of Medicine, summed up what this means quite succinctly: “Language competence is at the root of social competence. Musical experience strengthens the capacity to be verbally competent.”

But the language centers of the brain are not the only part that are physically effected by learning to make music. Some research has shown that musicians’ brains, even those of young musicians, work drastically differently than non-musicians. In fact, a recent study put on by professors from both Boston College and Harvard Medical School found changes in the brains of young students after only having weekly musical lessons and practice for a little over a year. Specifically, all of the students showed a marked improvement in their fine motor skills and sound discrimination, with changes to the brain in the areas associated with those skills.

While improved fine motor control is something that you might guess would come with learning music, and language skills aren’t too much of a leap from notes on a page, something that might be more surprising is the improvement student of music show in spatial-temporal skills. Spacial intelligence is the ability you have to perceive the world around you accurately, and to form mental images of things you are familiar with. This kind of skill is critically important for a whole world of real life situations, from packing a suitcase for a trip with everything that will be needed, to solving advanced mathematical equations (like leaving an appropriate tip).

So what does all this add up to? To answer that simply: improved test scores. A study published in 2007 by the University of Kansas showed that elementary school students who attended schools with strong music programs scored 20% higher in math, and 22% higher in English on standardized tests than students with poor, or no music program offered. These results held true even when socioeconomic disparities between the school was taken into account. While it’s true standardized tests are not the end-all be-all of education, higher test scores lead to better opportunities, and higher SAT scores open all kinds of doors.

These are just a few of the countless benefits that even a short education in music can bring a student. I could go on about the benefits to the creative parts of the mind, including self-expression, artistic creation, and the social benefits that go with those concepts. I could talk about how the leadership and teamwork skills that playing in a band or orchestra build rival those taught through team sports. I could go on and on about the endless benefits that an education in music can bring to any mind, young or old, but each could fill an entire article all on its own. Suffice it to say, learning to read and make music has far reaching implications beyond the music classroom. We don’t understand how all of it works, but it is clear that it does. Music brings a broader understanding of the world around you, and incites new ways to think about it, and your place in it. Happy learning!