September 25, 2013 – We’ve known this for some time: music education is positively associated with overall academic achievement, especially in subjects like math, science and reading.
Moreover, recent longitudinal studies found this association to be true both with children from households with lower socio-economic status, and with gifted students.
What research yet has to fully demonstrate is whether or not there is a causal link between exposure to music and academic outcomes. However, with an ever-increasing capacity to measure brain activity and chemical markers, neuroscience is slowly revealing several mechanisms that could potentially explain how exposure to music impacts achievement at school.
When we listen to music, we stimulate many different parts of the brain: the perception, emotion, motor and memory parts, as well as the high-level functions (anticipation, problem-solving, abstract thinking) and, of course, the auditory cortex. All of these systems, which are essential to learning, are activated in very integrated and coherent ways by music.
A comprehensive literature review conducted at McGill University, concluded that listening to music also affects four neurotransmitters that could significantly influence academic outcomes:
- Dopamine, an essential neurotransmitter for drive and motivation;
- Serotonin, which, among many things, plays an important role in memory and learning processes;
- Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter and hormone which intervenes in pro-social behaviours and empathy; and,
- Cortisol, a stress hormone, which may interfere with memory and learning.
While dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin have never been studied in a music education context, cortisol was. A study found that students who received music education had significantly lower cortisol levels than those who did not. As to oxytocin, it may not have been studied in a music education context, but we may hypothesize that it mediated altruistic behaviours observed in a study, which found that music education improved helpfulness among children.
That’s far from being enough to talk about a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to music and academic achievement. But think of it: complete brain stimulation, enhanced motivation, enhanced memory processes, positive social behaviours and a reduction to the stress that impedes learning… This seems like a pretty good recipe for student success.
And the benefits last way beyond school years: a study found that people who learned to play a musical instrument as children appear to experience less decline in brain function as they age. But this will be the subject of another article.
Read more on music and education in the Arts Research Monitor.
Prepared by Frédéric Julien, for Orchestras Canada and CAPACOA
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