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 or whether it was just 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, something which they no doubt regretted once the peace of the family home was shattered by my daily practice.

I’m not sure 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 does indeed enhance academic performance.  Unfortunately, the educational authorities in Britain clearly don’t share this opinion and have already marginalised the teaching of music to such an extent that researchers have warned that it could face extinction as a subject taught in secondary schools. 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 has been shown to be linked to verbal memory and literacy in childhood, with research showing a biological basis for this link. Researchers 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 improved more rapidly in students who regularly received music instruction and their language skills were also better developed than in those who were not musically trained.

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, regulate their behaviours, make good choices, solve problems, plan and adjust to changing mental demands. Research has shown that in cognitive tests, adult musicians and musically trained children were capable of enhanced performance on several aspects of executive functioning.

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

3. 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 has been shown to have a significant effect on the development of the brain, resulting in enhanced white matter in the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibres that connects the left and right motor regions of the brain. The effect of increasing white matter in the corpus callosum is important to academic achievement 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 has shown him to have had extraordinary white matter connectivity between brain hemispheres. Einstein, arguably the 20th century’s greatest scientist, was taught 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, returns to his study.”

4. Music lessons can help children with ADHD to concentrate

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

Music training can be a far more effective way of dealing with ADHD. Studies have shown that music training helps to develop the auditory, visual/spatial, and motor cortices of the brain, areas of the brain that are usually 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.

5. Music Training increases the blood flow in the brain

Many studies have confirmed the benefits of increased blood flow to the brain, which 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, which has been shown to hinder the advancement of dementia and other memory loss related to aging.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool, Department of Psychological Sciences have shown that after just a half an hour of simple music training, blood flow was increased to the left hemisphere of the brain, the area which is responsible for language development.

When it is taught as a creative art, music is a subject which offers so much that is of value to the student.  Unlike the majority of subjects taught in school which focus on the use of verbal and analytical skills, logic, factual information processing and reasoning, music allows children to develop and express complementary skills such as imagination and creativity, giving balance to the curriculum and an opportunity for pupils with artistic abilities to shine.   This alone should be a good enough reason for keeping music education at the core of the school curriculum but 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 standard 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 and how it can be applied for positive effect, click on the image below to see details of the Musical Medicine manual.