Volume 2 Issue 2

What is the Impact of Music Education on Academic Achievement?


by Karen Fitzpatrick, MA

We all place a high value on the academic success of students—measuring student learning is clearly important. However, the true measure of education lies beyond what’s measured by a standardized test score. How does music education impact academic achievement? 

Recent research shows that music impacts the brain by affecting how students learn to read, write and do math, the speed with which they process language, and their ability to multi-task.   Music develops skills that are critical for future success, including creativity, collaboration, determination, motivation, and processing. Equally important, it shapes students’ understandings and feelings about themselves and the world around them. 

This is the true story of how music education transformed a little girl’s life. Her earliest memories of music were of hearing her mother sing in church, crying at her first piano lesson when she was four, and starting piano lessons again when she was five. In the fifth grade she started band by playing the cornet, which was passed down from her brother. That was her first awareness that she was special—the best student in beginning band. Why?  Because she could read music and knew how the notes should sound. Her self-esteem blossomed and it impacted how well she did in all the other subjects, how she felt about herself, and her relationships with others.

When she was in seventh grade, the band teacher invited her to play with the high school band.  Wow!  Now she knew she was really special. She was the only one in her class invited to join the high school band.  From that time on, her identity was as a musician.  Being an excellent cornet player, she achieved daily success in high school. She became the accompanist for high school music activities, and sang in small groups. The road to college was paved with a music scholarship, the Dean’s list, musical drama opportunities, such as playing Marion-the-librarian in The Music Man, and graduating from college in three years with a degree in music education.  

When this little girl, the author, was asked to write an article about how music education impacts academic achievement, her first thought was about how music had impacted her life and her academic achievement: it built her self-esteem; created social interactions with others;  allowed her to learning musical concepts, skills and knowledge, which transferred to other aspects of  life; developed fine motor skills; enabled her to express herself artistically; provided exposure to a world outside of her immediate family and environment;  opened the door to advanced degrees and a professional career; and gave her enjoyment and a way to exercise of her mind  by singing and playing the piano, even into retirement.   

What does the research say about how music impacts academic achievement?  A brief review of literature on this topic gives a glimpse into the effects of learning music.

Test Scores

On the 2012 SAT, students who participated in music scored an average of 31 points above average in reading, 23 points above average in math, and 31 points above average in writing.

—Source: College Board SAT, 2012 College-Bound Seniors: Total Group Profile Report.  (See table 18.)

The Brain

Music training in childhood “. . . fundamentally alters the nervous system such that neural changes persist in adulthood after auditory training has ceased.”

—Source: Skoe, E. & N. Kraus. (2012). A little goes a long way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood.  The Journal of Neuroscience, 32(34):11507–11510.

Scientific American’s (2010) board of editors asserted, “Studies have shown that assiduous instrument training from an early age can help the brain to process sounds better, making it easier to stay focused when absorbing other subjects, from literature to tensor calculus.”

—Source: Hearing the music, honing the mind.  (2010). Scientific American, 303(5), 16.

Brain scientists have documented that when a teacher combines the arts with the academics, he/she not only stimulates greater learning potential and intelligence, but also supports the psychological development of confidence and self-esteem, both of which lead to deeper emotional commitment to learning.

—Source: (Gazzaniga, M.S., 1998). Dr. David Sortino, 2012.


Studies have shown that listening to music can boost memory, attention, motivation and learning.  It can also lower stress that is destructive to your child’s brain.  Learning to play a musical instrument has an effect on the brain’s proportional thinking and spatial temporal reasoning that lay the foundation for abstract math.

—Source: Dr. David Sortino, 2012. Muftuler, Bodner, Shaw, & Nalcioglu 1999, Restak, 2003, Sousa, D. 2006.

Piano students can understand mathematical and scientific concepts more readily. Children who received piano training performed 34 percent higher on test measuring proportional reasoning—ratios, fractions, proportions, and thinking in space and time.

—Source: Neurological Research, February 28, 1997.


To be a musician is to be a consummate “multi-tasker”. Music performance requires facility in sensory and cognitive domains, combining skills in auditory perception, kinesthetic control, visual perception, pattern recognition, and memory.

Source: Herholz and Zatorre, 2012; Strait and Kraus, 2013. Frontier in Psychology:  Art and Science:  How Musical Training Shapes the Brain 2013


The combined results of 30 studies indicate that music instruction is linked to significantly improved reading skills.

Source: Standley, J. M.  (2008). Does music instruction help children learn to read?  Evidence of a meta-analysis.  Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 27(1), 17-32.

Improved Graduation and Attendance Rates

Schools that have music programs have significantly higher attendance rates than do those without programs (93.3 percent as compared to 84.9 percent).

Source: Harris Interactive Inc. (2006).  Understanding the Linkages Between Music Education and Educational Outcomes

Schools that have music programs have significantly higher graduation rates than do those without music programs (90.2 percent as compared to 72.9 percent). In addition, those that rate their programs as “excellent or very good” have an even higher graduation rate (90.9 percent).

—Source: Harris Interactive Inc. (2006). Understanding the Linkages Between Music Education and Educational Outcomes. 


Playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brainstem’s sensitivity to speech sounds.  This relates to encoding skills involved with both music and language.

Source: Patrick C M Wong, Erika Skoe, Nicole M Russo, Tasha Dees, & Nina Kraus. (2007). Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns. Nature Neuroscience, 10(4), 420-422.

Engagement with music offers many benefits to a child's brain in ways that a standardized test can never show. Benefits include promoting language acquisition and reading skills, listening skills, memory, motor skills, multi-tasking, social interactions, and the artistic expression of human feelings. It’s time to think beyond the test score, to allow students to become deeply  engaged with learning, to give them the knowledge and skills to think critically, and to nurture students’ understandings and feelings about themselves and the world around them—to become truly educated.

Karen Fitzpatrick is a retired Jeffco principal, former music teacher, and a performing musician.