Improving Academic Performance with Music

“It’s recognised in this school that those boys and girls who play a musical instrument tend to perform better in exams”.

Many years have passed since my schooldays but I can still clearly recall my music teacher, Mr. Daines, making the above statement at the start of my very first music lesson at secondary school. The school had a strong reputation for music, with a good orchestra and choir and I did wonder at the time if his claim was true.  After all, it could have been a clever ploy to get more potential recruits for his beloved orchestra.

I was keen to learn to play an instrument and so I ignored any doubts I had and happily repeated what he had said to help convince my parents that I should learn to play the trombone.  I’m sure they soon regretted this once the peace of the family home was shattered by my daily practice.

I don’t know whether Mr. Daines could call upon any hard evidence to support his statement but over the years since that day I’ve found numerous research articles and case studies that endorse his view: music training does indeed improve academic performance.  Unfortunately,the educational authorities in Britain clearly don’t share this opinion.   They’ve already marginalised the teaching of music to such an extent that researchers have warned that it could face extinction as a secondary school subject. So for them, and anyone else who might be unsure of the benefits of music classes, here are five proven ways in which music training has been shown to assist learning and academic development.

1. Music training improves literacy skills.

Musical aptitude and ability is linked to verbal memory and literacy in childhood. Researchers have found that poor readers have a reduced neural response when exposed to rhythmic rather than random sounds, when compared to good readers. Their study showed that this neural response improves more rapidly in students who regularly receive music instruction.  Those who are musically trained also show more highly developed language skills than those who are not.

These results led senior study author, Nina Kraus PhD, to conclude that, “While music programs are often the first to be cut when the school budget is tight, these results highlight music’s place in the high school curriculum”.

2. Music training improves executive brain function.

Executive functions are the high-level cognitive processes that enable people to quickly process and retain information. They also help people to regulate their behaviours, make good choices, solve problems, and plan and adjust to changing mental demands. Research has shown that in cognitive tests, adult musicians and musically trained children are capable of enhanced performance on several aspects of executive functioning.

Functional MRI testing of the children during testing also shows that those with musical training display higher activation of the areas of the brain which are known to be linked to executive function.

3. Music lessons can help children with ADHD to concentrate.

Children today are increasingly being diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.  This disorder is estimated to affect over 10% of children in the United States. Medication is the most common treatment for ADHD but this carries the risk of potentially dangerous side effects.

Music training can be a far more effective way of dealing with ADHD. Studies show that music training helps to develop the auditory, visual/spatial, and motor cortices of the brain.  These are the areas of the brain that are usually found to be underdeveloped in children with ADHD. Case studies such as the one outlined in this article suggest that sustained music training can help improve the focus and concentration of children diagnosed with ADHD, transforming their potential to learn and the quality of their lives.

4. Music training at an early age improves brain connectivity. 

Making music has an impact on how well different areas of our brains communicate with each other. Musical training at an early age is seen to have a significant effect on the development of the brain.  It enhances the white matter content in the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibres that connects the left and right motor regions of the brain. The increase in white matter content is important because several studies have demonstrated that robust left-right brain connectivity is directly linked to intelligence and creativity.

A recent analysis of photographs taken of the brain of Albert Einstein shows that he had extraordinary white matter connectivity between brain hemispheres. Einstein, who was arguably the 20th century’s greatest scientist, learned to play the piano and violin when he was very young and continued to play both these instruments throughout his life. His wife Elsa once remarked, “Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down and returns to his study.”

5. Music Training increases the blood flow in the brain.

Many studies confirm the benefits of increased blood flow to the brain.  Indeed this is one of the reasons why physical exercise is considered to be good for you. In addition to strengthening the body, an increase in the blood flow to the brain increases the amount of oxygen that brain cells receive. This is shown to hinder the advancement of dementia and other memory loss related to ageing.

The Department of Psychological Sciences of the University of Liverpool, have studied the effect of music training on blood flow within the brain.  They found that blood flow to the left hemisphere of the brain, which is the area responsible for language development, increases after just a half an hour of simple music training. 

Music is a subject which is highly valuable to students when it is taught as a creative art.  The majority of subjects taught in school focus on the use of verbal and analytical skills, logic, factual information processing and reasoning.  In contrast, music allows children to develop and express complementary skills such as imagination and creativity.  This gives balance to the curriculum and an opportunity for pupils with artistic abilities to shine.  

This reason alone should be a good enough reason for keeping music education at the core of the school curriculum.  When we add in all the benefits highlighted by the research outlined above, the case becomes compelling.  And if anyone still isn’t totally convinced, there are already schools that have significantly raised academic standards by focussing resource into music training rather than subjects which are included in national school performance assessments.

Of course, none of this would come as a surprise to Mr. Daines.  I should never have doubted him.

If you are interested in the true nature of music including how it can be applied for positive effect, click on the image below to see details of the Musical Medicine manual.