By Hrayr Attarian, MD
The ancient Greeks, arguably the progenitors of Western Culture, considered music as an essential part of a well-rounded education together with art, science, math, literature, and politics.(1) Yet today, in an age of budget cuts, music classes are often the first to be eliminated when schools are trying to make ends meet.(2) Were the Greeks right in their inclusion of musical education as part of a comprehensive and rigorous pedagogy? What does modern research tell us?
Public health scientists Martin Guhn and Scott D. Emerson, together with Peter Gouzouasis, a professor of music education from the University of British Columbia, sought to answer this question in their elegant and timely study.(3) When the trio delved into the existing scientific literature they discovered mixed and often conflicting results. This seemed primarily due to the variability in the definition of musical education and what is meant by music making and musical engagement.(3) Because of this gap in the published knowledge base the three academics designed their study to clarify four questions: A) Does music participation improve academic outcomes compared to no music participation? B) Does the type of music—vocal or instrumental—make a difference? C) Does excellence in and degree of musical involvement make a difference in academic achievement, and D) does the scholastic subject—language, science or math—matter?(3)
Guhn, Emerson, and Gouzouasis acquired records from all 60 secondary (middle and high school) school districts of British Columbia on a total of 112,916 students. They accounted and controlled for socioeconomic status, cultural background, academic achievement in elementary school, and neighborhood where the students lived. Their results were intriguing yet not surprising. Those who received any music education performed significantly better in math, science, and English as compared to those who didn’t. Students who studied instrumental music had higher scores in the three academic disciplines than those who studied singing. This difference, however, disappeared when considering the group of students taking 5 or more music courses per semester. The amount of music education and achievement levels in it also correlated positively with the students’ math, science and language grades.(3)
Why, then, does learning music have this beneficial impact on scholastic aptitude? There are various theories on this supported by empirical data. Music engagement can actually change the brain. The most recent evidence for this comes from Switzerland. Researchers at the University of Geneva used music to improve brain connectivity in premature infants, hence decreasing the risk of neurological deficits in these newborns.(4) Because of his experience writing music for vulnerable groups, the scientists asked composer and harpist Andreas Vollenweider to create works suitable for premature babies. Then they randomly assigned some premature infants to a musically enriched environment and some to surroundings without music. With functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) they measured connectivity within the brains of these infants and compared it to brain connectivity in healthy, full-term babies.(4) The premature newborns exposed to music had stronger connectivity between different areas of the brain than those not exposed to music. In fact, the fMRIs of infants in the music group were similar to those of full-term newborns while the connectivity was much weaker in the brains of the “no music” premature babies.(4)
Learning music in childhood or early adolescence also leads to changes in brain structure in a way that enhances what neuroscientists call executive function. These brain changes are well documented on MRI.(5) Executive functions are primarily the product of the frontal lobe, the largest part of the brain.(6) They include flexibility in switching between tasks, self regulation, and monitoring information and correlating it with working memory.(6) Another possible explanation for music’s impact on academic improvement could be that engaging in music improves self discipline, efficacy, and mastering learning experiences.(7) Lastly, engaging in musical activities improves team spirit, bonding, and improved self esteem—all of which translate to academic excellence.(8) In reality, all these elements play an important role in making children who learn music academically high achievers.
Therefore, the Greeks were right. Music curricula helps students perform better in other subjects and positively changes their brain structure, leading them to become more productive members of society. In view of these facts, music education should be the last thing to be defunded in districts aiming for higher scholastic performance.
1. Stamou L. Plato and Aristotle On Music and Music Education: Lessons From Ancient Greece. IJME. 2002;39 (1):3–16.
2. Major ML. How They Decide: A Case Study Examining the Decision-Making Process for Keeping or Cutting Music in a K–12 Public School District. J Res Music Educ. 2013;61(1):5–25.
3. Guhn M, Emerson SD, Gouzouasis P. A Population-Level Analysis of
Associations Between School Music Participation and Academic Achievement. J Educ Psychol. 2019; Advance online publication.
4. Lordier L, Meskaldji DE, Grouiller F et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2019;116(24):12103–12108.
5. Steele CJ, Bailey JA, Zatorre RJ, Penhune V B. Early musical training and white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum: Evidence for a sensitive period. J Neurosci. 2013;33:1282–1290.
6. Diamond A. Executive functions. Annu Rev Psychol. 2013; 64:135–168.
7. Evans P, Liu MY. Psychological needs and motivational outcomes in a high school orchestra program J Res Music Educ. 2019(67): 83–105.
8. Adderley C, Kennedy M., Berz W. A home away from home: The world of high school music classroom. J Res Music Educ. 2003;51:190–205.