How Learning a Musical Instrument Affects the Development of Skills

Hille, A. & and Schupp, J. (2013). How learning a musical instrument affects the development of skills. German Socio-Economic Panel Study 33.

Abstract:

This study examines how long-term music training during childhood and youth effects the development of cognitive skills, school grades, personality, time use and ambition using representative data from the German Socio-Economic Panel study (SOEP). The findings suggest that adolescents with music training have better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious. These effects do not differ by socio-economic status (SES). In addition, the findings indicate that music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance.

Key Findings:

On average, students who learned a musical instrument scored significantly higher than other children on a test of cognitive skills. The average for music students was more than twice that of students who participated in sports.

Adolescents with music training were found to be more open and conscientious than other; this does not translate to agreeableness.

Students who learned a musical instrument were 18% more likely to aim at attending university.

After learning a musical instrument, students from low-SES families experienced twice the increase in ambition to attend university than their high-SES peers.

Significance of the Findings:

This study provides an understanding of the impact of private instrumental music lessons – both during the school day and out – on student achievement. The findings demonstrate that students who learn a musical instrument have increased cognitive and non-cognitive skills, particularly for those from low-SES families. These data indicate that private music lessons could be used by state and district leaders as a strategy to address the achievement gap by increasing student achievement and ambition.

Methodology:

The data for this study originated from the German Socio-Economic Panel study (SOEP) that compiles surveyed longitudinal data from a student’s household. Outcomes examined in the study were taken from the separate SOEP Youth Questionnaire given to a student at age 17. Combining these two data sets and controlling for a variety of factors, the student’s outcomes at age 17 have a full background from the longitudinal SOEP provided by the family. The researchers estimated the effect of learning a musical instrument at least from age 8 to 17. The decision to take up music lessons at an early age is likely to be strongly influenced by the parents. Therefore, the research considers many parental background characteristics, which were measured when the adolescent was still young.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers identified four main limitations to the study:

The SOEP Youth Questionnaire does not ask students about past musical activities, 60% of all musically active children give up in their early teen years.

About 60 percent of all observations entered the data at a later age then 8; meaning earlier childhood experiences at the benchmark age of 8 were not recorded.

Ideally, the study would be conducted separately for boys and girls, but reducing the sample by half would considerably reduce the match quality.

The SOEP consists of several samples that were added over time to increase the overall sample size. In some of these samples, parts of the population were overrepresented (foreigners, families with any children, or high-income families).

Questions to Guide New Research:

The researchers identified three areas for focus for future research:

1. What is the influence of music lessons when the influence of parental and individual background is removed?

2. To what extent are alternate extracurricular activities substitutable for the same or similar results? Further research on the potential of different types of activities could be carried out by carefully modeling the interaction between activities that may be substitutes or complements.

3. What are the long-term effects of learning a musical instrument on outcomes such as labor market success or life satisfaction?