Does musical training improve school performance?

Wetter, O. E., Koerner, F., & Schwaninger, A. (2009). Does musical training improve school performance? Instructional Science: An International Journal of the Learning Sciences, 37(4), 365-374.

Abstract:

The researchers used a descriptive, retrospective study to ascertain if students involved in practicing music outperformed their counterparts, who did not practice music, in school. Teachers of two school centers in the suburbs of Bern, Switzerland submitted annual reports of average grades for 134 students in grades three through six. The teachers identified students who received music training either at home or at school and researchers compared the annual grades of this group of 53 children to the grades of the remaining students who did not take music lessons. Results showed that overall, and for all individual subjects except sports, students who engage in music had higher average grades than students who do not engage in music. The study also suggests that duration of music participation impacts academic achievement.

Key Findings:

Statistical analysis comparing grades showed that children involved in music had significantly higher average grades than children in the control group. Moreover, the music group had significantly higher average grades in all individual subjects except sports.

When researchers considered factors known to affect achievement including gender, grade level, parent income, and handicraft participation—in addition to music participation—music was still a significant predictor of overall average grades. Grade level and parent income were found to have higher correlations to student achievement than music participation, though combined, music participation, grade level, and parent income explain 43 percent of the variance (the size of the difference between groups) in grades between students.

The research did not find a significant difference between music and non-music students at the third grade level, when students would just be starting musical training. However, at all other grade levels, students who participate in music achieved higher average grades than their non-music peers. This finding suggests that duration of musical training has a more significant effect on student achievement, meaning that the longer students practice music the stronger the impact will be on their academic achievement.

Significance of the Findings:

Findings suggest that participation in music correlates with higher academic performance in elementary grades, even when factors known to influence academic performance are considered. Further, no difference was seen between students who participate and who do not participate in music in third grade, but a difference was seen from fourth grade on; this may suggest greater benefit from sustained music involvement. Differences between music and non-music students are seen across subjects, suggesting a correlation between music and general cognitive performance. The study adds to an emerging body of research that aims to identify and explain the ways in which music is processed in the brain, and how those processes relate to other academic learning.

Methodology:

Teachers from two school centers in the suburbs of Bern, Switzerland submitted copies of average grades for 134 students in grades three through six. Teachers identified for researchers, students who participated in music, as informed through discussions with the students or their parents. Researchers divided the students into three groups; students who participate in music in school or out of school (53), students who do not participate in music or a handicraft (67), and students who participate in a handicraft instead of music (14). The researchers compared grades for the groups of students in various subject areas including French, German, mathematics, history/natural history/geography, handicrafts, music, and sports, and used statistical analysis to determine correlations between academic achievement and grade level, gender, income, music participation, and enrollment in school handicraft class.

Limitations of the Research:

This study is most limited by self-selection bias. Because the students considered in the study chose (or, at least, their parents chose) to enroll or not to enroll in music lessons, it is not possible to determine if higher average grades of students involved in music are the result of participation in music or other factors not accounted for in the study, such as high levels of motivation or prior academic success. Similarly, the duration and intensity of music training could not be determined for each student, and therefore “participation in music” is loosely defined. Because the scope and quality of music participation cannot be determined, it is harder to draw correlations between music study and academic achievement in terms of the cognitive processes present in both.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Replication of this study using design features such as random assignment or pre- and post-test measures could provide information on the strength of the correlation between music participation and academic achievement. Alternatively, the inclusion of additional variables that may affect achievement such as a motivation would provide additional evidence on the role that music participation plays specifically.

Since this study is suggestive of a possible relationship between music participation and academic achievement, qualitative research such as case studies on students who engage in musical activities could provide valuable information on the mechanisms at work in this relationship.