When her son started kindergarten at a public school in Berkeley, Calif., Marion Atherton just assumed that music would be part of his education.
As the director of the Crowden School, a Bay Area non-profit that offers music education to children who don’t have access to it, Atherton took it for granted that her own son’s school would teach music. She soon learned differently: her son wouldn’t be getting any music classes until third grade.
“I was sort of shocked,” said Atherton. “Here I am director of the Crowden Center, and my own children don’t have a music program?”
Her son’s school was not alone: A 2008 study by the Center on Education Policy found a narrowing of school curricula had resulted in a significant shift away from arts and music programs nationwide: since 2001-2002, 16 percent of elementary school districts have reduced their instructional time in arts and music. Music programs in schools continue to be largely dependent on fundraising, and thus on the socioeconomic status of their communities.
Such cuts to music education are particularly ironic given the growing body of research that underscores how music engages many of same areas of the brain involved in language processing, memory, and other critical thinking skills essential for academic success. Music also appears to benefit kids socially and emotionally.
Here are seven areas where studies have shown the benefits of music to kids’ education and development:
Multiple studies indicate that the brain processes music and language in similar ways, and that music training benefits the development of a variety of language-related skills, from vocabulary building to phoneme processing. The Neurosciences Institute reports that its research has “revealed a significant degree of overlap between music and language processing,” and in a 2005 study, researchers at Stanford University found that mastering a musical instrument improves the way the human brain processes parts of spoken language. The findings suggested that students who are struggling with language and reading skills could especially benefit from musical training.
The benefits of music training appear to extend to memory, too. A study by researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that children with musical training showed better verbal memory than their peers. “When these children were followed up after a year,” the study’s authors wrote, “those who had begun or continued music training demonstrated significant verbal memory improvement.” In other words, memorizing music pieces correlated with improvements in non-musical memory, too. The enhancement of working memory in young adults via music training was further validated in a 2018 study by researchers at York University.
The correlation may stem from particular ways that music “challenges” young minds. Takako Fujioka, a scientist at Stanford and co-author of a study that found musically trained children showed greater improvement on memory tests throughout the course of a year than their non-musically trained peers, explains that playing music “requires the brain to solve the problems of how to allocate attention and memory toward complex tasks.”
If you’ve ever tried to read even a simple piece of music — or bang a drum in time to a beat, you know that music requires you to preform mathematical processes (like division) on the fly. But research has also shown a link between music education and success in school math. A study by The Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada, for example, concentrated on the effects of arts education on elementary school students, and found that students in the arts program “scored significantly higher on mathematical tests of computation and estimation” than did students in a control group.
Dr. Frank Wilson, a neurologist and an authority on the relationship of hand use to human cognitive development, explains that the study of music teaches children to “self assess,” rather than to rely on external rewards. While much of our schooling focuses on grades and prizes, music can foster an internal motivation. The precision and attention required to play an instrument — the instant feedback loop that requires you to adjust your own performance — encourages an “ongoing surveillance of yourself,” Wilson says. “It leads you to become a critic of your own work, to not be satisfied with anything less than achieving what it was you intended to do.”
Takako Fujioka points out that the benefits of playing music go beyond academic applications: “When you participate in music in a community or a school, you develop shared memories during musical activities. It’s a bonding experience.”
That bonding can also develop kids’ ability to work together. A study by researchers at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, found that at-risk elementary school kids who had music instruction in an after-school program showed a significant decrease in behavior problems. Sharon Burch, an elementary school music teacher who developed the “Freddy the Frog” series of books and activities to teach the fundamentals of music to children, has also seen the effects of music on students’ social well-being. “I teach 450 kids per year,” she says, “and I notice that the kids involved in music are the most well-behaved, have the most confidence, and are doing well in their academic classes.”
With all the benefits that music brings to kids’ language, math, memory and self-assessment, it’s little surprise that there is a strong correlation between music and general academic success. Studies have shown that students in music programs scored higher in English and math than students who had no music at all, and high school students with music training scored higher than their non-musical peers on the SAT, according to the College Board. A 1994 survey even found that music majors, as a group, had the highest acceptance rate to medical school.
Students with music training tend to rank higher in common measures of long-term success such as educational attainment and income: a 2007 poll by Harris Interactive found that nearly nine out of ten people with post -graduate education had participated in music while in school, and 83 percent of those with incomes of $150,000 or more had had music education. Texas educators have also found that high school students who participated in band or orchestra reported the lowest lifetime and current use of drugs and alcohol.
Bringing music back to schools
Marion Atherton efforts to integrate music into the early grades at her child’s school were ultimately successful. She applied and received a grant from the California Arts Council to bring in a music teacher for regular instruction. The schools’ teachers who would be adding music to their classrooms initially were wary. After all, already they had more lesson plans and requirements than they could cover in a given school day.
But, like Atherton, they came to see that music was not an “extra” activity, but one that was integral to education in general.
“The teachers were a little resistant at first,” Atherton recalls, “but over time they actually became hugely supportive of it. They saw how it gave certain kids a confidence or a joy they didn’t see in other ways. And it was a great way for a classroom to feel a sense of community — and that carried over into the other things their classroom did.”