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State of the Science: The Link Between Music and SAT Scores


State of the Science: The Link Between Music and SAT Scores

If you’re currently using Codabear kits, chances are you are working with children who are much too young to be thinking about SAT scores.

And yet… your child’s SAT scores might play a large role in determining his or her options for college.  And by offering your child music and art education now—you might be giving her a leg up later.

Music As an Elective

Elective.  What a word.  It sounds so… extraneous.  Peripheral.  Supererogatory.

These days, many schools offer no music education at all.  When music education is offered, it’s almost always offered as an elective.  Worse, music is sometimes offered as a pull-out class, meaning that students must sacrifice “traditional” class work in order to participate in music.

Elective.  Take it or leave it.  Up to you.

Is there a reason to encourage music education over other electives?

Research Suggests a Link between Music Education and SAT Scores.

There’s lots of research to suggests that music education is linked to a host of important educational outcomes.  Here’s a brief overview of the highlights:

  1. A 2010 article explores the evidence relating to the impact of musical skills on language development, literacy, numeracy, measures of intelligence, general attainment, creativity, fine motor co-ordination, concentration, self-confidence, emotional sensitivity, social skills, team work, self-discipline, and relaxation.
  2. A 2000 study found that students who took any kind of arts course in high school had higher SAT scores (both math and verbal) than students who took no arts course at all.  Among the different kinds of arts courses, music appreciation and music performance were highly correlated with better SAT scores.
  3. A 2006 study found that middle school students at schools with “exceptional” music programs did better on standardized tests than students at schools with “deficient” music instruction or no music instruction.
  4. Another study from 2006 found that music education could dampen the harmful effects of low socioeconomic status (SES) on educational outcomes. By the ninth grade, lower-SES students who were involved in music education surpassed their higher-SES counterparts who had received no music education—in all subjects.

If music education is so important, then why on earth isn’t it required?  One reason might be that the vast majority of evidence so far documents a link between music education and educational performance—but it doesn’t prove that music education caused that higher performance.  It’s still not clear whether learning music allows you to learn other things faster—or whether those who tend to learn faster are the same children who tend to choose to study music.

New Study Finds no Causal Relationship between Music Education and SAT Scores. 

A recent study by Kenneth Elpus attempts to clarify the relationship between music and the SAT.  Elpus conducted an analysis that tested whether music education was still linked to better SAT performance once you take a person’s prior academic achievement into account—and he found that the relationship did not persist.  It appears that students who study music tend to do better on the SAT because of something else—something besides the fact that they took music.

So how Important IS Music Education?

It’s still clear that music, movement and art have benefits for young children.  A Parenthood.com article reviews a body of evidence linking music to the development of motor skills, coordination, emotional awareness, social skills and relaxation.  It’s just less clear that these benefits translate automatically to points on the SAT.  That’s not to suggest that music education is superfluous, extraneous, or nonessential—it only suggests that music education has its own special benefits in its own right.  As Steven Demorest and Steven Morrison put it:

Future research may indeed strengthen the connection between music and other forms of intelligence, but musical intelligence and achievement is its own reward, as we have seen countless times in our students. […] Thus, the path to academic excellence would seem to involve multiple avenues rather than the single road of reading, writing and arithmetic.