Does playing a musical instrument make you smarter?

by Alana Walden, 14 December 2020
Girl playing the violin

A great deal of previous research (e.g. Southgate & Roscigno, 2009; Hille & Schupp, 2014; Hallam & Rogers, 2016; Guhn et al., 2020) has looked at the relationship between learning a musical instrument and a child’s social, emotional or cognitive development. Much of it suggests a positive relationship between the two. Yet, little has been written about the relationship between learning music and academic achievement in the context of secondary school students in England.

Cambridge Assessment’s researcher Tim Gill looked into this by using data from the National Pupil Database to investigate whether having formal music tuition is associated with better GCSE results.

His analysis uses GCSE and equivalent results from nearly half a million students, and includes data on a range of factors known to affect attainment, such as gender, deprivation, ethnicity, special needs and school type.

Four different music qualifications were used to identify students who took part in formal music tuition prior to taking their GCSE exams. These were: GCSE Music, VRQ Certificate in Performance for Music Practitioners, Graded Music (practical) and Graded Music (theory).

What do the results show?

GCSE music

The research found that there was a clear positive effect of taking GCSE music (the most popular Key Stage 4 music qualification) on overall GCSE attainment. The size of the effect was equivalent to 1/6th of a grade per GCSE (an improvement of one grade in every sixth GCSE subject taken).

Graded music exams

There was also a positive association between taking graded music exams and GCSE attainment. Graded Music (practical) exams are a way of formally assessing the achievements of those learning a musical instrument and are available at different levels, from grades 1 to 8. The research shows that for those achieving the more advanced grades (4 and above) the positive effect was estimated to be 1/3rd of a grade per GCSE, compared to those not taking a graded music qualification. For Graded Music theory exams (taken by students learning an instrument, covering areas such as notation, scales and composition), the effect was almost one grade in every second GCSE qualification taken.

Gender

The research showed a significant interaction effect between gender and graded music qualifications, with boys seeing a larger positive effect from studying for these qualifications than girls do..

School type

Significant interactions were also found between GCSE music and school type and between graded music exams (at grades 4 and above) and school type. These suggested that the effect of studying for these qualifications was only positive for students in comprehensive schools.

What do the results mean?

The results of the study mean that a comprehensive school student who typically takes 9 GCSEs would expect to get one grade higher in 1 or 2 of their (other) subjects if they studied GCSE music, or one grade higher in at least 3 subjects if they achieved a graded music qualification (grades 4 and above).

Student type

Estimated effect from taking…

GCSE Music

Grade 4+ Music exam

Comprehensive school students

+ 1 or 2 GCSE grades

+ 3 GCSE grades

Selective school students

No significant effect

No significant effect

Girls

+ 1 or 2 GCSE grades

+ 3 GCSE grades

Boys

+ 1 or 2 GCSE grades

+ 5 GCSE grades

However, it is not possible to infer from these results that taking a music qualification led to better GCSE outcomes, only that there is undoubtedly a positive association, confirming the findings of many previous studies . It may be, for instance, that students who were more motivated to do well academically were also more likely to take part in extracurricular activities, such as learning a musical instrument. However, because GCSE Music is not usually an extracurricular activity, the positive link between taking the qualification and attainment is more robust.

Why is this important?

There have been growing concerns about the decline in music education in England in recent years. There is a perception that music has been ‘squeezed out’ in some schools due to an increased focus on more ‘academic’ subjects. For example, a survey undertaken by the University of Sussex ( Daubney & Mackrill, 2018) found that 59% of respondents claimed that the EBacc accountability measure (introduced in 2010) has had a negative impact on the provision and uptake of music in their school. There was also a reported fall in the percentage of schools offering GCSE music, with 18% of respondents saying that their school was not offering the subject at all. Therefore, the positive result seen in this study about the association between music education and attainment is important and might give some schools pause for thought.

Read more about this study

Gill, T. (2020). The relationship between taking a formal music qualification and overall attainment at Key Stage 4 . Cambridge Assessment Research Report. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment

References

Daubney, A. & Mackrill, D. (2018). Changes in Secondary Music Curriculum Provision over time 2016-18: Summary of the research. Brighton: University of Sussex.

Guhn, M., Emerson, S. D., & Gouzouasis, P. (2020). A population-level analysis of associations between school music participation and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112 (2): 308-328

Hallam, S. & Rogers, K. (2016). The impact of instrumental music learning on attainment at age 16: a pilot study. British Journal of Music Education. 33(3): 247-261

Hille, A. & Schupp, J. (2015). How learning a musical instrument affects the development of skills. Economics of Education Review. 44: 56-82

Southgate, D.E. & Roscigno, V.J. (2009). The Impact of Music on Childhood and Adolescent Achievement. Social Science Quarterly. 90(1): 4-21

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