It is a truth universally acknowledged that playing an instrument helps children in many aspects of school life – well, at least in the fraternity of music teachers it is. Until recently, however, we have been in want of evidence to support our theory. These are big claims that are tricky to test: it’s tremendously hard to prove that instrumental music-making trains and increases a child’s cognitive capacity; that commitment to regular practice and rehearsal can have effects on motivation beyond the rehearsal room; and that succeeding and failing together in an ensemble can change the way we feel about ourselves and the way we relate to others.
This want of evidence is becoming a problem for our children’s education. The recent report Music Education: State of the Nation describes dwindling secondary curriculum hours for music, fewer specialist music teachers and states, yet again, the damaging effects of the English Baccalaureate. Entries for GCSE music have fallen by 18.6 percent since 2014 (Daubney, Spruce and Annetts, 2019).
So we should all sit up and take notice of a new study, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Education Psychology (Guhn, Emerson and Gouzouasis, 2019). It’s a big piece of work, exploring the records of nearly 113,000 Canadian pupils, and it makes a powerful central claim – that “students highly engaged in music were, on average, academically over one year ahead of their peers not engaged in school music”.
The study takes academic outcomes – mathematics and science achievement in the chosen cohort at the age of 15 or 16 (Canadian grade 10), as well as English achievement at both 15 or 16 and 17 or 18 – and compares them with involvement in music, instrumental and vocal, measured by the number of music classes taken. The effects are positive in all cases, but strongest when comparing academic success with involvement in instrumental music. The greater the engagement, the stronger the effect; the longer the engagement, the greater the benefit seen.
The usual caveats apply to these numbers. Pupils come to us from different social and varied cultural backgrounds, with a diversity of prior experience in music as well as in life, and all are unique in their initial motivation to succeed.
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