Steven J. Holochwost et al, “Music Education, Academic Achievement, and Executive Functions,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts,” 11, no. 2 (2017): 147-166.
This study examined whether music education was associated with improved performance on measures of academic achievement and executive functions ― a set of cognitive processes humans use to set and pursue goals. The participants were 265 children (enrolled in first through eighth grade) and 58% female, with 86% identifying as African American. The students were selected by lottery to participate in an out-of-school program offering individual and large ensemble training on orchestral instruments. Measures of academic achievement (standardized test scores and grades in English language arts and math) were taken from participants’ academic records, and executive functions (EFs) were assessed through students’ performance on a computerized battery of common EF tasks. Results indicated that students who participated in the music education program had higher academic achievement and exhibited gains in executive functions and memory. Findings are discussed in light of current educational policy, with a particular emphasis on the implications for future research designed to understand the pathways connecting music education and EFs.
- Elementary school students (first through eighth grade) assigned at random to participate in an intensive (five days per week) out-of-school music program exhibited higher levels of academic achievement than their peers.
- Students assigned to the program also exhibited better performance on measures of executive functions.
- The largest differences in academic achievement were observed between students in the music program for two to three years and their control-group peers.
- Results indicated that, relative to controls, students in the music education program scored higher on standardized tests, earned better grades in English language arts and math, and exhibited superior performance on select tasks of EFs and short-term memory.
- Further analyses revealed that although the largest differences in performance were observed between students in the control group and those who had received the music program for two to three years, conditional effects were also observed on three EF tasks for students who had been in the program for one year.
Significance of the Findings:
These findings suggest that music education may cause improvements in students’ academic achievement and EFs, and that these improvements may be generalizable to demographically diverse populations of elementary school students. However, the intensive schedule of the program (five days per week, two hours per day), together with the fact that some effects were not observed until students had been in the program for two years, indicate that these improvements may require substantial investments of time and resources to be realized.
Participants were 265 children (enrolled in first through eighth grade) and 58% female, with 86% identifying as African American. The students attended a school in a historically underserved area of a major northeastern city in the United States. Academic achievement was measured using a combination of course grades and standardized test scores; EFs was indexed using computerized versions of nine EF tasks. Data were analyzed using a series of hierarchical linear models that tested the effects of the program on these measures of academic achievement and executive functions.
Limitations of the Research:
- The measures of executive functions featured a forward digit span task of short-term memory, rather than a backward span task of working memory.
- Analyses did not control for students’ socioeconomic status or IQ.
- Although the study featured an active control group (an after school homework club), the results cannot exclude the possibility that a program offering instruction in another arts discipline would have conferred similar benefits.
Questions to Guide New Research:
- What accounts for the apparent effects of music education on academic achievement and executive functions? Specifically, can these effects be partially explained by:
- The potential for music to enhance students’ motivation or task persistence?
- The possibility that music reorganizes students’ neurological and neurophysiological function to better support learning?