Music Students Score Better in Math, Science, English Than Non-Musical Peers

Effect more pronounced for those who take instrumental rather than vocal music, study finds

WASHINGTON — High schoolers who take music courses score significantly better on exams in certain other subjects, including math and science, than their non-musical peers, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.  

“In public education systems in North America, arts courses, including music courses, are commonly underfunded in comparison with what are often referred to as academic courses, including math, science and English,” said Peter Gouzouasis, PhD, of the University of British Columbia, an author of the study of more than 100,000 Canadian students. “It is believed that students who spend school time in music classes, rather than in further developing their skills in math, science and English classes, will underperform in those disciplines. Our research suggests that, in fact, the more they study music, the better they do in those subjects.”

The research was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

The researchers examined school records for all students in British Columbia who started the first grade between 2000 and 2003; completed the last three years of high school; had completed at least one standardized exam for math, science or English (10th or 12th grade); and for whom they had appropriate demographic information (e.g., gender, ethnicity, neighborhood socioeconomic status).

Of the more than 112,000 student records studied, approximately 13% of the students had participated in at least one music course in grade 10, 11 or 12. Qualifying music courses included concert band, conservatory piano, orchestra, jazz band, concert choir and vocal jazz. General music or guitar courses did not qualify as they required no previous music experience and, in the case of general music, did not require music-making or practice, according to Gouzouasis and his co-authors, Martin Guhn, PhD and Scott Emerson, MSc, also from the University of British Columbia.

“Students who participated in music, who had higher achievement in music, and who were highly engaged in music had higher exam scores across all subjects, while these associations were more pronounced for those who took instrumental music rather than vocal music,” he said. “On average, the children who learned to play a musical instrument for many years, and were now playing in high school band and orchestra, were the equivalent of about one academic year ahead of their peers with regard to their English, mathematics and science skills, as measured by their exam grades.”

Apart from the strength of the associations, the researchers were most surprised by the consistency of the associations across all three subject areas (math, science and English). These associations continued to be significant even when the researchers controlled for demographic factors such as gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background and prior achievement on similar exams in seventh grade.

Gouzouasis believes that some skills learned in band, orchestra, and conservatory music lessons transfer very broadly to adolescents’ learning in school.

“Learning to play a musical instrument and playing in an ensemble is very demanding. A student has to learn to read music notation, develop eye-hand-mind coordination, develop keen listening skills, develop team skills for playing in an ensemble and develop discipline to practice. All those learning experiences play a role in enhancing children’s cognitive capacities and their self-efficacy,” he said. “We think that the effects we see are partly a result of the fact that children engaging in school music over many years mostly receive quality music instruction and need to master the high expectations of performing at a high school band or orchestra level. In fact, it is that high levels of music engagement for which we saw the strongest effects.”

The researchers hope that their findings are brought to the attention of students, parents, teachers and administrative decision-makers in education, as many school districts over the years have emphasized numeracy and literacy at the cost of other areas of learning, particularly music.

“Often, resources for music education – including the hiring of trained, specialized music educators, and band and orchestral instruments – are cut or not available in elementary and secondary schools. The argument has frequently been that we need all our money to focus on math, science and English,” said Gouzouasis. “The irony is that music education – multiple years of high-quality instrumental learning and playing in a band or orchestra or singing in a choir at an advanced level – may be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.”

Article:“A Population-Level Analysis of Associations Between School Music Participation and Academic Achievement,” by Martin Guhn, PhD, Scott D. Emerson, MSc, and Peter Gouzouasis, PhD, The University of British Columbia. Journal of Educational Psychology. Published online June 20, 2019.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at

Contact:Peter Gouzouasis, PhD, can be contacted via email at [email protected] or by phone at (604) 822-4460.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes nearly 118,400 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives. withyou android app

One thought on “Music Students Score Better in Math, Science, English Than Non-Musical Peers”

  1. The authors of the paper imply that music causes higher scores, but I’m not quite convinced. If I have time later, I’ll read the full article, but I’d argue that even though they controlled for a number of factors, I suspect it is still largely selection bias rather than something inherent to music that causes the increase in scores.

    This whole “music makes you smart” thing has been pushed forever, now. It may or may not be true, but I find that people who publish these papers often are quite invested in “proving” that “music makes you smart,” which makes me extra skeptical.

    I used to teach piano lessons. The smart kids would stick with it and practice and the not-so-bright ones would quit. Similarly, kids who would otherwise keep up with lessons would often quit when shit was going on in their lives (having trouble in school, parents divorcing), and the ones who stuck with lessons were the ones whose lives were running smoothly with no hitches.

    In my experience, there is a strong selection bias when it comes to students choosing instrumental music. Kids that have other shit to worry about it just don’t have the time or energy to invest in such an activity. Often the kids who chose to quit would stick in vocal music, too, since usually that commitment isn’t as burdensome, so it makes total sense to me that they wouldn’t have found a relationship between vocal music and test scores in this paper.

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