From small children playing percussion, singing, and later learning to read music in order to perform on a keyboard, string, or wind instrument, music has almost always been considered part of a well-rounded education. Now more and more studies show that music has a profound positive impact on students' ability to do well academically. In fact, learning music may enhance the physical structures of the brain to such an extent that music studies deliver advantages in almost every academic subject.
Numerous studies show that practicing music helps to develop language skills and increase memory, two qualities that obviously aid in being able to learn. Patricia DeCorsey, coordinator of Lawrence University's Early Childhood Music Program in Appleton, Wisconsin says that introducing children to music is "a super-advantage. So many areas of the brain benefit at the same time, like the mathematical and language centers."
Academic improvement isn't the only benefit of music studies. Just as a swimmer's arms and a runner's legs grow stronger from exercise, musician's brains grow in response to the need to develop finger coordination and other skills necessary to perform.
Says Professor Donald A. Hodges, director of the Music Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, "Music is always a physical activity. Musicians are small-muscle athletes. When Yo-Yo Ma is playing his cello in concert he's not thinking," Hodges states. "All the thought took place earlier, and if he were to think now it would impede his playing. He is simply performing, much like a highly trained athlete. The benefits of musical performance don't go just to the performers, says Prof. Hodges, "A listener sitting still in a classical concert hall is having the area of the brain that controls motion stimulated."
As well as stimulating the growth of connections in the brain, research suggests exposure to music improves a child's reading age, IQ, memory, attention span, and emotional development. Learning music requires a child to develop the discipline to stick with it, too. This ability easily translates to developing the discipline to dig in to academic subjects like math and science.
All that studying, though, can generate tension. Here's where music's ability to help people relax comes into play. With young students, time spent releasing nervous energy by singing or listening to soft music helps make them more receptive to their studies. How many times have you heard about pupils who were struggling academically but who became accomplished students thanks to their introduction by a thoughtful teacher or a caring adult to a musical instrument or a band program?
The qualities of increased concentration and focus as well as an increase in logical thinking are all traits developed in studying music that transfer to academic work. Children who can concentrate longer are more apt to learn and learning becomes less of a struggle for them.
This is partially borne out by the common link between students who play music in school and those who maintain high grade-point averages. Having gotten used to discipline and working in a focused manner, they're primed to do well academically. Later in life, students who have studied music outperform non-music students significantly on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). And the results get better for every year that a student has participated in a music program. Pupils with over four years of music study achieved average SAT scores in the mid-500s, while those who had at least a semester of music instruction averaged in the high-400s.
This finding holds up for the ACT and other college admissions tests as well. Later in life, it turns out, roughly 66% of music majors who apply to medical school are accepted—the highest number for any such group. In comparison, only 44% of biochemistry majors are granted admission to medical school.
Perhaps the boost to academic performance is due to music aiding in the development of language and reading skills. Parents who sing to their babies help them learn sounds that eventually are the building blocks of language. In school, children easily learn concepts that are introduced with song. An obvious example is the famous "alphabet song" every child learns by the time they're in kindergarten. For young students, musical games help teach fundamental concepts. Later, learning to actually read music helps to develop all the skills necessary for reading text as well as being very similar to acquiring a foreign language, and just as valuable.
Music also boosts creativity and the ability to see the relationships between seemingly unrelated things—enhancing all learning. Children who have studied music develop faster socially, mentally, and even physically.
Music study appears to have a unique impact on the development of higher brain functions that are necessary for reading, science, math, and engineering. Math is the academic subject most closely connected with music. So it is with mathematics that we'd expect to see the most obvious benefits of music study. Studies show that even at age 3 and 4, music training helps dramatically to development children's abstract reasoning skills—the very skills critical for math and science achievement. Both math and reading improve when even very young students learn rhythm and how to decode notes and symbols through music.
Research by Dr. Frances Rauscher, Endowed Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, suggests that the study of music—especially on a keyboard instrument—is superior to computer instruction to dramatically enhance children's ability to reason abstractly. This ability, necessary for math and science, may well result from the child working with the keyboard's logical linear layout of notes, but the benefits when integrated last for life.
Whether the positive impact of music on all forms of learning results from a direct connection between music and the mind's ability to think clearly, or other factors are involved—such as the higher self-esteem and social involvement of music students—it is clear that the study of music has benefits for the study of all academic subjects and for overall student success.