Music and Achievement

by George "jorge" Tate

Presented at the Texas Orchestra Directors Association


Over the past several years, research has finally begun shedding light on the critical nature of arts education in human development. "In a study of the ability of fourteen year-old science students in seventeen countries, the top three countries were Hungary, the Netherlands, and Japan. All three include music throughout the curriculum from kindergarten through high school" (Dickinson, 1993, p. 1). Royer (1991) lists several correlations between music education and academic achievements. He found that:

Dillard (1982) found that young gifted/talented students in the first and third grades increased scores on tests of intelligence and tests of creativity by participating in a fine arts program (p. 72).

The affect of music and brain development of children was spotlighted nationally in the Newsweek cover story, "Your Child's Brain - How Kids are Wired for Music, Math and Emotions" (1996, Begley). "In the brains of nine string players examined with magnetic resonance imaging, the amount of somatosensory cortex dedicated to the thumb and fifth finger of the left hand - the fingering digits - was significantly larger than in non-players" (p. 57). Shaw and Rauscher (cited in Begley, 1996) claimed that preschoolers who were given piano or singing lessons "dramatically improved in spatial reasoning" when compared to children who received no music lessons. This phenomenon is now called the "Mozart effect" and the research to date doesn't fully explain it. (p.57) The editors of Newsweek boldly state, "If more (school) administrators were tuned into brain research . . . music . . . would be a daily requirement" (AMC, 1997).

The Council for Basic Education is known for it's promotion of a curriculum strong in the basic subjects (e.g., English, history, math, science, geography and foreign language). It also includes arts education as a basic subject. As board member Harriet Fulbright (1992) states:"A significant part of each school day should be devoted to teaching the arts both as separate subjects for the benefits they impart in their own right and as integral elements of academic courses to enliven and reinforce the material". Furthermore, "[a] school should teach students through all forms of intelligence, not only those stimulated by traditional academic classes" (Fulbright).

"Research into the records of students in several schools indicates that a curriculum that devotes 25% or more of the school day to the arts produces youngsters with academically superior abilities" (Oddleifson , 1991, p.46). Furthermore, education in the arts activates mental activity by exciting the imagination; engages students by "learning by doing" (teacher as coach); develops an "aspiration to achieve;" requires hard work (practice) and discipline "to hone technique;" develops and requires commitment over time; and, develops the ability to work alone and with others for collective accountability(p. 47).

Several studies now point to the correlation between Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores (other standardized test scores) and student participation in musical performing groups. In 1989, Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) began to track the SAT scores for students chosen to participate in the All-State performing groups. All-State students as a group has consistently outperformed the state and national SAT averages by 200 points. In 1996 the national SAT average was 999 while the All-State Composite was 1210. (Texas All-State, 1997) Higher SAT scores have been reported by the College Board for all music students. There also is a correlation to the number of years students have studied and participated in music. The longer a student plays an instrument or sings, the higher the test scores tend to be. (SAT Scores, 1990).

McCarthy (1992) found that in one Colorado high school with a student enrollment of 1064 that student band and orchestra members scored higher than non-performers in the area in grade point average, reading, language, mathematics tests and in composite results. There were no significant differences due to ethnicity or economic status (almost 40% of the student population was on a federally funded free or reduced cost lunch program). Students in instrumental groups reach higher academic achievement, absenteeism is significantly lower, and self-esteem higher.

The Texas Center for Educational Research (TCER) reported on a longitudinal study conducted by the U. S. Department of Education. (cited in Clark, 1995 , p.2) "Students who participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, performing arts, honor societies, student government, and hobby clubs have higher levels of achievement" (p. 2). Students also showed better attendance and a heightened desire for more education. The results are true of "virtually all high schools regardless of wealth, size, location, or percentage of minority students. . . . For all students, the connection between extracurricular participation and school success was direct and positive" (p. 2).

Dr. Robert Jesselson (1997), director of University of South Carolina String Project asserts:

But what we are doing [as music teachers] in the training of young people is even more important than this research shows. We are passing on our culture - a universal language of music which can cross boundaries and facilitate understanding. As the Charleston sculptor Willard Hirsch said when he addressed the cadets of the Citadel in 1948, "Art is a language, and a powerful one. All of us should know at least a few words in it" (Jesselson).
The President of the Yamaha Corporation of America, Peter Suzucki (cited in Floyd, 1991), says, "The demanding process of music learning is applicable and transferable to all learning. Music is a core subject in the schools of Japan and Germany. An educational leader in Germany states: The leadership of our country, and our people believe that to survive in the computer age you must have music. The Ministry of Education in Japan has gone on record to say: Our goal is to inspire the child's interest and concern for music and to foster, through the study of music expression and appreciation that will enrich their entire lifetime" (cited in Floyd).

Lillian Brinkley (cited in Floyd, 1991), the Past-President of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, has observed that "[t]eaching the whole child is important. Music can be used to reach the whole child". She started an elementary black male chorus. The results have been overwhelming. Attendance is soaring, "discipline problems are almost nil," and the students' sense of pride has increased. Dignity is the word she uses to describe the way that they perform. "Much of the money we put into discipline programs should be put into music programs. Beyond the use of their talents, music instruction provides non-musical rewards including self-esteem, self-discipline, individual creativity, as well as positive effects on the academic and social skills of children" (cited in Floyd).

George Comiskey (1994), coordinating Specialist for Safe and Drug-Free Schools for the Lubbock Independent School District, reports that the 1994 Texas school study of substance abuse among students in grades 7 through 12 indicates that the use of illicit drugs by Texas students is similar to national trends. Nationally, substance abuse by teenagers is up since 1992. "However, students involved in extracurricular activities, especially music, have committed parental involvement, along with a strong parental message against substance use, do not fall into the category of rising substance abuse." Furthermore, "[s]econdary students who participated in band, orchestra, or choir reported the lowest lifetime use of all substances" (Comiskey).

In an open letter to parents, the Headmistress of Walnut Hill School and Past President of the Network of Performing Arts Schools, Stephanie Perrin (1992), wrote:

Many parents feel that the study of fine and performing arts is a nice thing for their children to do, a kind of finishing touch to a good liberal arts education. However, they feel that what prepares their children for the "real world" of college and the work place is the study of traditional liberal arts disciplines such as math or science. What I would like to suggest, radical as the notion may seem, is that the serious study of the arts is one of the best ways to educate a young person for college and work. (Perrin)
The Department of Education for the State of Connecticut clearly desires arts education to continue to be an essential part of the secondary school curriculum. (Ensuring Arts Experiences, 1993) The Handout #65 issued by the Department requires all secondary schools to offer an 8-period day so that students may elect fine arts classes. The Department of Education recognizes the importance of arts education for those who may wish to go to college: "Colleges admissions offices want students who have studied the arts courses in high school" (p. 1). Interestingly, arts education is relegated to only the Enrichment Curriculum (Cluster 2) in the Texas State Board of Education's current Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) that is in it's final form. It is grouped with some 15 other subjects ranging from health science, technology, to foreign languages, career orientation, and home economics. (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, 1997, April)

With the passage of "Goals 2000: Educate America Act," the fine arts are recognized as a core area of study in which American students are expected to achieve competency. (The Arts, 1995, March, p. 2) From a paper prepared by The Consortium of National Arts Education Associations:

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act Reauthorization echoes the belief that the arts are essential to excellent teaching and learning. It references the following findings:
Finally, the eminent educator Dr. Charles Fowler (1989) asserts that "[w]e do not need more and better arts education to develop more and better artists, any more than we need mathematics primarily to develop mathematicians. We need more and better arts education to produce better educated human beings, citizens who will value and evolve a worthy American civilization. Better educated human beings: That is our justification for being an essential part of general or basic education" (p. 25).

Even though "[t]he arts have always been the stepchild of American education. . . . the arts' potential to lead the way towards schoolwide improvement is almost limitless. . ." (Down, 1992). But, despite the research and the observations concerning the positive effects of the fine arts and fine arts education and the possibilities arts education might have for public schools, the reality is that "[t]he arts have not prospered in American Schools" (Fowler, 1989, p. 20). The decline in the arts and in arts education began in 1957 when the U.S.S.R. beat the United States into space. Sputnik suddenly focused our attention on what was perceived to be missing in math and science. Then, "[i]n 1983, the federal report A Nation At Risk again tied education directly to our ability to compete in world markets and to regain 'our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation.'" Now,

[w]hile television saturates us in superficial glitz and vacuous entertainment, technology demands deeper scientific knowledge and more highly specialized education. . . [and] [t]he public tends to associate education in the arts with the frivolous world of TV and entertainment, not with the technological future which has become the serious business of education. . . . The unrelenting pressure on schools to serve corporate and commercial needs has established an elite core of subjects in American schools that are labeled "the basics" - the subjects that every student must master. The arts are seldom admitted to the club. (Fowler, p. 21)
Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education (1991, March) echoes similar concerns:
The core of the "core curriculum" is too often hollow. It is empty of the meaningful, sustained opportunities our children require if they are to grow and mature as complete persons. Our children need language and literature. They must have mathematics and science. They need to learn how to respect themselves and others. But they will never be all they are capable of becoming without a love of music, the ability to make it, and an appreciation of the other arts to complement it. (p. 10)
Texas has one of the strongest performing arts traditions in the United States and, possibly, the world. The annual TMEA convention in February, 1997, boasted 17,387 in attendance. Texas probably leads the country in music education through performing arts classes such as band, orchestra and choir. Music educators in Texas are dedicated and student participation has been substantial.

As was pointed out earlier, the study of music is associated with higher academic achievement. Aside from the apparent correlation between SAT scores and the study of music, what more can be said?

From Plato and Aristotle to modern philosophers and thinkers, music has been a rich domain for conversation, observation, and exploration. Music is intertwined with philosophy, mathematics, physics, literature, visual art, dance, elevator rides, dinner parties, religious worship, aesthetic appreciation, relaxation, concerts, Romeo and Juliet, the radio, compact disks, noble as well as ignoble political causes, kings and queens, the common man, whales, and, in a word, life. We are alive in music just as we are alive in language. Music is essential to being human.

Albert Schweitzer was a pianist (Kieran, 1965) and compared Bach to Kant. (pp. 154, 194-201) Math, philosophy, inventiveness and music go together.  Ervin Laszlo, a pioneer in systems theory, was a concert pianist while still in his early teens.  Following is a listing of some of the mathematicians/philosophers who were at home in music. This list represents a span of time from approximately 350 B.C. to the present. Many of those listed were accomplished musicians and several made major or minor contributions to music theory or practice: (Biographies, 1997)

Albert Girard
Emil Artin
Roger Bacon
Giovanni Battista Benedetti
Paul Bernays
George Birkhoff
Farkas Bolyai
Ch'in Chiu-Shao
Ebenezer Cunningham
Albert Einstein
Leonhard Euler
Georg Faber
Caroline Herschel
Christiaan Huygens
William Jerons
Irving Kaplansky
Emile Lemoine
Anatoly Malcev
Marin Mersenne
Emmy Noether
Theon of Smyrna
Herbert Turnbull
Pierre Wantzel
Dr. Roger Payne (1992), the foremost scientist in whale research, played his cello in the Public Broadcast premier of the video, In the Company of Whales. He is an accomplished player and was able to imitate certain whales' songs.

Thomas Jefferson was a musician. (Biancolli, 1947) "In fact, some historians consider him to have been, with possibly one rival for the title, America's great amateur violinist. The rival was John Randolph, before he turned Royalist and abandoned his native land" (Biancolli). When he was a youth, he played a jig for Patrick Henry that is said to have brought Mr. Henry to his feet, dancing. Jefferson practiced daily and he married Martha Skelton, a harpsichordist. The Jefferson family's huge musical library is a national treasure.

Benjamin Franklin wrote string quartets and invented the glass armonica. Mozart and Beethoven loved the instrument and composed for it. It is conceivable that Jefferson and Randolph even played some of Franklin's quartets, though they wouldn't play them very often. The music is quite easily played and extremely repetitive.

One of the greatest thinkers of our century, indeed of any century, played the violin. Albert Einstein: "If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. . . . I get most joy in life out of music" (Einstein, 1997b) And, again: "A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy" (Einstein, 1997a).

Multiple intelligences is no longer a new theory. Howard Gardner published his Frames of Mind (1983) in which he sets forth his theory of multiple intelligences of which music is one. His theory "proposes that people use at least relatively autonomous intellectual capacities - to approach problems and create products. These include linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences" (Gardner, no date). Musical intelligence should be nurtured and time allotted for the learning of music in school. "Being able to express human feelings through performance seems a sufficiently important educational goal that no justification is necessary. If one can learn to communicate feelings through music, dance, and theater, such learning will enhance life; if school experiences can enable a student to acquire or heighten that ability, no other justification is needed" (Colwell & Davidson, 1996, p. 62).


Back to the top
The arts and student achievement: ideals for schools and communities. (1995). The Arts and School Improvement [Online]. [25 April 1997].

AMC (1996). Newsweek cover story focuses on music and child development. Newsweek [Online]. [13 April 1997].

Begley, S. (1996). Your child's brain - how kids are wired for music, math, and emotions. Newsweek, 127(8), pp. 55-58, 59-62.

Biancolli, L. (1947). Life's reports: Thomas Jefferson, fiddler. Life Magazine, [Online], 1947. [28 April 1997].

Biographies. (1997). [Online database]. MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. ["music" "violin" "piano"][28 April 1997].

Clark, C. (1995). Extracurricular participation makes a difference. TCER Connection, 6(4), 2.

Colwell, R. and Davidson, L. (1996). Musical intelligence and the benefits of music education. NASSP Bulletin, 80(583), 55-64.

Comiskey, G. (1994). Participating in music; parental involvement decreases chances of lifetime substance abuse. (Available from Lubbock I. S. D., 1628 19th. Street, Lubbock, TX. 79401.)

Dickinson, D. (1993). Music and the mind. (Available from New Horizons for Learning, P.O. Box 15329, Seattle, WA, 98115-0329), p. 1.

Dillard, G. H. (1982). The effect of a fine arts program on the intelligence, achievement, creativity and personality test scores of young gifted and talented students. Doctoral dissertation, East Tennessee State University.

Down, A. G. (1992). The role of the arts. (Special reprint, The Arts as Basic). Basic Education, 36(10).

Einstein, A. (1997a). Himself [Online]. [28 April 1997].

Einstein, A. (1997b). Life [Online]. [28 April 1997].

Ensuring arts experiences for secondary students: arts requirements, secondary scheduling, and the 8-period day. (1993). Handout #65. (Available from Department of Education, State of Connecticut, Box 2219, Hartford, CT, 06145.)

Fizsimmons, W. R. and Lewis, M. M. (1996). Cocurricular activities and the quest for college. The High School Magazine, 4(1), pp. 18-19.

Floyd, R. (Ed.). (1991). What people say about the importance of music in our schools. (Available from UIL Music Office, P.O. Box 8028, Austin, TX, 78713)

Floyd, R. (1993). Riding the wave of the education evolution. Southwestern Musician - Texas Music Educator, 62(5), pp. 8-9.

Floyd, R. (1994). A statistical survey: music teachers speak out on block scheduling in Texas. Southwestern Musician - Texas Music Educator, 62(9), pp. 22- 26.

Fowler, C. (1989, May 13). Music education develops the skills the business community requires. Proceedings of the Symposium on the Importance of Music in Education (pp. 20-26). South Shore Conservatory, Duxbury, MA.

Fulbright, H. M. (1992). Transformed through the arts. (Special reprint, The Arts as Basic). Basic Education, 36(10).

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (no date). Intelligence in seven steps. Creating the Future (Dickinson, D. Ed.) [Online]. [28 April 1997).

Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education. (1991, March). The Report of the National Commision on Music Education. (Available from Music Educators National Conference, 1902 Association Drive, Resten, VA, 22091.)

Hall, G. (1992). The effects of the four period day on Colorado high school performing arts classes. Unpublished master's thesis. Adams State College, Alamosa, CO.

Hancock, L. (1996). Why do schools flunk biology? Newsweek, 127(8), p. 58.

Jesselson, R. (1997, March 13). Cancelling fifth grade band and orchestra. ASTA [Online]. ASTA-L@CMSUVMB.CMSU.EDU [13 March 1997].

Kieran, T. (Ed.). (1965). A Treasury of Albert Schweitzer: The Most Important Writings of One of the Greatest Humanitarians of Our Time. (1994 ed.). New Jersey: Gramercy Books.

Mann, P. (1996). Block scheduling trends. Southwestern Musician - Texas Music Educator, 64(8), pp. 12-20.

McCarthy, K. J. (1992, January 31). Music performance group membership and academic success; a descriptive study of one 4-year high school. Revised paper presented at the meeting of the Colorado Music Educators Association.

Oddleifson, E. (1989). The case for sequential music education in the core curriculum of the public schools (from a businessman's perspective). (Available from The Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum, 58 Fearing Road, Hingham, MA 02043).

Oddleifson, E. (1991). The case for the arts. In Context, 47, pp. 46-47.

Payne, R. S. (1992). In the Company of Whales [video]. Discovery Channel Catalog/Wild Animals/Whales.

Perrin, S. B. (1992). The arts are nice, but . . . (Available from The Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum, 58 Fearing Road, Hingham, MA 02043).

Royer, R. (1991). Research report - justify your program. Wyoming Music Educator's Association Journal, July, 20.

SAT scores found to correlate with arts study. (1990). Soundpost (FYI), 7(1), p. 21.

Texas All-State Student SAT Scores. (1997, April). (Available from TMEA, P.O. Box 49469, Austin, TX, 78765.)

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). (1997). Texas Education Agency [Online]. [Chapter 17, Fine Arts]. [25 April 1997].