Music education can uncover hidden talents and lifelong passions, but did you know that music also boosts non-musical outcomes?
Scientific research is revealing surprising and positive effects reaped by young people who make, play, or listen to music. From better grades in English, math, and history to improved emotional management and social skills, music education is proving to be an important ingredient in whole-person development.
Let’s dive in and examine the evidence.
Music education benefits [INFOGRAPHIC]
Examining the evidence
These 17 compelling studies reveal how music positively impacts children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development.
1) Enhances vocabulary
Improving and increasing vocabulary by learning new words and their meanings is a lifelong pursuit, but it’s perhaps most earnest in childhood, where vocabulary is being informed by school, parents, books, television shows, and, of course, musical choices. The learning process can certainly have its amusing (and embarrassing) moments for parents of verbose kids, but boosting vocabulary and mastering usage is a life skill they’ll use time and again.
One 2009 study of second-grade students demonstrates a link between musical instruction and effective use of vocabulary and verbal sequencing. Children were split into two groups, an experimental group which received three years of piano instruction, and a control group which received no musical instruction, whether scholastic or private. At the end of the study, the experimental group scored significantly higher at vocabulary and verbal sequencing ability when tested. (Source)
Key study/paper: Piro, J. M., & Ortiz, C. (2009). “The effect of piano lessons on the vocabulary and verbal sequencing skills of primary grade students” Psychology of Music, 37(3), 325–347.
2) Supports cognitive function
Clear, effective thinking, quick recollection, and good decision-making are all related to healthy cognitive function, which is something that can be improved and developed through mental “exercise”. Learning about and participating in musical education is linked to improvements in cognitive function, which is seriously beneficial to children’s developing brains.
An assessment of the relationship between cognitive development and structured musical education divided a group of over 70 4-6 year old children into subgroups in which approximately half of the sample population participated in musical instruction. Both before and after this participation, children were assessed via the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale. After 30 weeks of 75-minute training sessions, music students scored higher on the SB Bead Memory subtest, correlating musical training an a boost in spatial-temporal reasoning ability. (Source)
Key study/paper: Bilhartz, T. D., Bruhn, R. A., & Olson, J. E. (1999). “The Effect of Early Music Training on Child Cognitive Development” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20(4), 615–636.
3) Develops reading and writing ability
Reading and writing are foundational aspects of not only your child’s education, but their life beyond it. Good reading comprehension is a necessary part of many jobs, as is being able to write with clarity and technical correctness. Though language and composition courses are traditionally thought of as the place to increase these skills, music education also has the potential to improve kids’ ability to read and write.
A meta-analysis on the impact of music education on academic achievement addresses data sourced from the National Center for Educational Statistics, which reports that within a sample population of over 13,000 high school sophomores, those who participated in music education demonstrated higher grades in English classes. (Source)
Key study/paper:Donald A. Hodges & Debra S. O’Connell (2005). “The Impact of Music Education on Academic Achievement” The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
4) Encourages self-esteem
Positive self-esteem is linked with happiness and success, and it begins in childhood. Children who don’t feel good about themselves may have trouble being assertive, making friends, and trying new things they’re hesitant about. When kids participate in empowering activities like music education, they often find reasons to feel great about themselves and their skills as well as reassurance from peers, teachers, and parents that feels validating.
In a study of 117 Montreal fourth-graders, all participants had not received music instruction previously, had a family income of under $40K a year, and did not have a piano in their home. These students were divided into two groups: an experimental group which would go on to receive weekly individual piano lessons for the next three years, and a control group, which received no instruction. At the end of the three-year study, children who had participated in the experimental group scored consistently higher in self-esteem than those who did not. (Source)
Key study/paper:Costa-Giomi, E. (2004). “Effects of Three Years of Piano Instruction on Children’s Academic Achievement, School Performance and Self-Esteem“. Psychology of Music, 32(2), 139–152.
5) Increases verbal memory
Quick recollection of spoken words comes in handy in many situations. It’s helpful when taking notes or tests in class, makes social interactions more fluid, and generally saves you from the frustration of forgetfulness. For kids, whose brains are still developing, opportunities to improve memory should be seized; as it turns out, music education can play a role in boosting verbal recollection skills.
One study from the University of Hong Kong measured the long-term effects of instrumental training in childhood on verbal memory by dividing 60 female students into two groups, one of which had trained for at least six years before age 12 in a Western musical instrument, the other of which had not. Each subject was read a list of 16 words, which was repeated three times. Subjects were then asked to recall as many of these words as possible. It was shown that those in the group which received musical training consistently remembered more words than their non-musical counterparts. (Source)
Key study/paper: Chan, A. S., Ho, Y.-C., & Cheung, M.-C. (1998). “Music training improves verbal memory” Nature, 396(6707), 128–128.
6) Boosts IQ
IQ, or intelligence quotient, can be a bit of a controversial topic — to be clear, it isn’t a measure of exactly how intelligent a person is. Rather, IQ is a measure of a person’s abilitu to use reasoning, logic, and provided data to correctly answer a question, make a prediction, or come to a conclusion. A long-term positive association between private music instruction and a boosted IQ was demonstrated by one 2006 study, which assessed a group of 6 to 11-year-old children who were receiving music lessons.
In tests that measured these children against non-musical peers, music lessons were shown to correlate with general and long-lasting improvement to IQ and cognitive ability. Interestingly, the lessons acted as somewhat of an equalizer in providing these boosts despite disparate backgrounds in participants, including varied family income, parental education level, and other extracurricular activities. (Source)
Key study/paper:Schellenberg, E. G. (2006). “Long-term positive associations between music lessons and IQ” Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(2), 457–468.
7) Develops empathy
The way children relate to their peers and interact socially is often informed by empathy, their ability to perceive, understand, and relate to emotional experiences had by others. Using empathy consistently to moderate social behavior is a measure of maturity, and some childhood experiences can help to foster empathetic feelings.
In a 1990 study assessing children with a mean age of 12, participants were divided into two groups. The first group was comprised of children who had received six or more years of piano or violin training prior to the study, while the second group was comprised of non-musical schoolchildren. Each group was assessed using the Epstein Empathy Scale and Battle Self-esteem Scale; the group which had received previous musical training scored higher at both empathy and self-esteem than non-musical peers. (Source)
Key study/paper: Hietolahti-Ansten, M., & Kalliopuska, M. (1990). “Self-Esteem and Empathy among Children Actively Involved in Music” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 71, 1364–1366.
8) Raises math and history scores
While academic achievement and ability comes naturally to some children, others have to work at it a bit harder. Subjects like math and history that rely heavily on recollection and critical thinking can be especially problematic for some kids, but as it turns out, time spent learning about music can play a role in improving their grades in these subjects.
In Hodges and O’Connell’s 2005 meta-analysis of academic achievement related to music education, it was discovered that participation in music not only improved grades in English, but in math, history, and science, as well. The meta-analysis also goes on to cite 14 studies in which music education is correlated with higher academic achievement scores. (Source)
Key study/paper:Donald A. Hodges & Debra S. O’Connell (2005). “The Impact of Music Education on Academic Achievement” The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
9) Reduces aggressive behavior
Aggressive behavior in children is often as troubling to kids themselves as it is to adults, as they may be struggling with other feelings such as fear, sadness, or loss of control. Addressing those feelings and channeling them into learning and self-expression can help to reduce feelings of tension that lead to outbursts, tantrums, or physically aggressive behavior.
In one 2007 study, the effect of music education on childhood aggression was measured by dividing 48 participants into two groups. One group of children participated in two weekly music education sessions at 50 minutes per session, while a second control group remained untreated. After 15 weeks of music intervention, the treated group had significantly reduced aggressive behaviors and demonstrated improvement in self esteem, while the control group demonstrated no change. (Source)
Key study/paper:Choi, A.-N., Lee, M. S., & Lee, J.-S. (2010). “Group Music Intervention Reduces Aggression and Improves Self-Esteem in Children with Highly Aggressive Behavior: A Pilot Controlled Trial” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 7(2), 213–217.
10) Teaches planning ability
Effective planning skills require critical thinking and use of logic, and they’re simply not inborn. Learning to plan well is a skill that takes education and life experience to develop, and some kids struggle a bit with how to get from point A to point B. Certain activities that require cognitive skill can help improve planning ability, including music education.
A longitudinal analysis of the executive functions of primary school children as they relate to experience in music education divided children into four groups. Two groups participated in music education, while one participate in visual arts, and one functioned as a control group with no changes. A battery of neuropsychological tests administered after the participation showed higher scores in inhibition, planning, and verbal intelligence in children in the music education group. (Source)
Key study/paper:Jaschke, A. C., Honing, H., & Scherder, E. J. A. (2018). “Longitudinal Analysis of Music Education on Executive Functions in Primary School Children” Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12.
11) Encourages perseverance
The ability to persevere in the face of challenges and difficult situations is certainly a virtue, and it’s generally one that’s earned through hard work and experience. Engaging in artistic and musical training that demonstrates the reward of improvement for their focus can play a role in encouraging perseverance in children.
A 1992 study measuring the attention and perseverance behaviors of preschool children taking part in Suzuki violin lessons grouped 80 children between the ages of 3 and 5 into five subgroups; the first took individual violin lessons, and the second took individual and group lessons. Two of the remaining groups engaged in other classes, while the final control group had no curriculum change. Analyzed tapes of the lesson and classroom demonstrated that the first two groups both scored higher on attention tasks, while the group engaged in both individual and group violin lessons spent a great deal more time on the perseverance task, demonstrating the ability to persevere. (Source)
Key study/paper: Scott, L. (1992). “Attention and Perseverance Behaviors of Preschool Children Enrolled in Suzuki Violin Lessons and Other Activities” Journal of Research in Music Education, 40(3), 225–235.
12) Improves articulation
A well-rounded vocabulary helps children to be articulate speakers, but it’s only one aspect of speaking well. Using correct pitch and cadence is also important, as it helps to clearly convey what is being said as well as the intended tone behind it, something with which children sometimes struggle.
In a longitudinal study of 32 children, it was demonstrated that a link between musical training and the brain plasticity that allows for pitch discrimination is likely to exist. The children in the study, who had no previous musical training, were split into two groups; one group received painting training, while the other received musical training. After six months of training, the children who’d studied music tested higher in reading ability and pitch discrimination ability in speech. (Source)
Key study/paper: Sylvain Moreno, Carlos Marques, Andreia Santos, Manuela Santos, São Luís Castro, Mireille Besson (2009). “Musical Training Influences Linguistic Abilities in 8-Year-Old Children: More Evidence for Brain Plasticity”. Cerebral Cortex, 19(3):712-713.
13) Protects against dementia
Dementia and other cognitive impairments are a devastating diagnosis to receive, but we now know that certain lifestyle factors can play a role in mitigating their likelihood of occurrence. In addition to healthy physical activity, a good diet, and general awareness of existing health conditions, keeping the mind sharp through regular mental exercise is also a preventative measure. As one fascinating study reveals, playing an instrument in childhood may well offer the mind that much-needed workout.
A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease assessed 157 pairs of twins who had discordant diagnoses of cognitive impairment — this means that one twin was diagnosed, but the other was not. Of those pairs, 27 were also discordant for playing an instrument in childhood, meaning that one twin was non-musical. Past training in a musical instrument correlated significantly with a lowered risk of dementia or cognitive impairment later in life. (Source)
Key study/paper: Balbag, M. A., Pedersen, N. L., & Gatz, M. (2014). “Playing a Musical Instrument as a Protective Factor against Dementia and Cognitive Impairment: A Population-Based Twin Study” International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2014, 1–6.
14) Facilitates anxiety management
Learning to regulate and tolerate big emotions can be tough for kids; not only are they still learning about the world, but their brains are also developing, which is a necessary aspect of emotional resilience. Managing their impulses and dealing with feelings of anger or anxiety may be made easier through musical instrument training, as one study notes.
A 2014 study on the correlation between playing musical instruments and cortical thickness maturation assessed 232 subjects between the ages of 6 and 18. MRI brain scans were administered a total of three times, occurring at two year intervals. It was determined that playing an instrument was indeed associated with faster maturation of cortical thickness, a part of the brain which is used in emotional and impulse regulation. (Source)
Key study/paper:Hudziak, J. J., Albaugh, M. D., Ducharme, S., Karama, S., Spottswood, M., Crehan, E., … Botteron, K. N. (2014). “Cortical Thickness Maturation and Duration of Music Training: Health-Promoting Activities Shape Brain Development” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 53(11).
15) Boosts standardized test scores
Every year, the faithful #2 pencil gets trotted out for another go at standardized tests. A week spent with test booklets and tiny bubbles to fill in isn’t much fun for kids compared to their normal learning, but these tests play an important role — they help to demonstrate whether teachers, schools, and districts are working effectively, and offer a measure of each child’s general competence. It can be hard to study for these tests, but instrumental music training may play a role in boosting scores.
In a study that compared the Ohio Proficiency Test results of instrumental music students to those of their non-musical peers, a correlation between improved standardized test scores and instrumental training was shown. Tests from fourth, sixth, and ninth graders were assessed, and instrumental students scored better than non-instrumental students in each subject, which included citizenship, science, reading, and math. These results held true at all grade levels. (Source)
Key study/paper:Fitzpatrick, K. R. (2006). “The Effect of Instrumental Music Participation and Socioeconomic Status on Ohio Fourth-, Sixth-, and Ninth-Grade Proficiency Test Performance” Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(1), 73–84.
16) Refines perceptual motor skills
Sensory play and motor skill development are tremendously important parts of early childhood education, and there’s a reason for that. The use of senses and motor skills in combination is called perceptual motor skill, and it informs coordination, proprioception, and athletic ability, among other aspects of our physical lives.
One 1981 study divided a group of children between the ages of 4 and 6 into two groups; an experimental group, which received education in an integrated musical and physical education program, and a control group, which only received education in movement exploration. After 24 of these sessions, assessment of the groups revealed that those in the experimental group improved significantly in motor, auditory, and language areas of perceptual motor skill. (Source)
Key study/paper:Brown, Judy, et al. “Effects of an Integrated Physical Education/Music Program in Changing Early Childhood Perceptual-Motor Performance” Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 53, no. 1, 1981, pp. 151–154.
17) Creates happiness
Joy is an essential aspect of human existence, helping us feel fulfilled and acting as a motivator that pushes us forward. There are many places and ways in which we seek happiness, and all of us, especially children, have a unique take on what makes us feel joyful. Music has been inextricably linked to expression of emotion throughout our history, and it is certainly an equalizer in terms of creating happiness; even science agrees.
A 2013 Canadian study which tested an association between self-directed music listening and global happiness saw a link between adolescents listening to their chosen tunes and an increase in feelings of happiness. These results were compared against those who listened to music that was not of their choosing, with note that autonomous choice of music likely reflected on personal meanings and experiences, thus creating feelings of joy. (Source)
Key study/paper:Morinville, A., Miranda, D., & Gaudreau, P. (2013). “Music listening motivation is associated with global happiness in Canadian late adolescents”. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(4), 384–390.
Whether it’s boosting scholastic ability, improving social interactions, or simply bringing joy, the important role which music education can play in our children’s lives shouldn’t be overstated. Studying and performing music in the classroom, at private lessons, or at home is posed to offer a range of benefits to our kids, inspiring a sense of pride and fostering motivation that can benefit them throughout a lifetime.