Music is an important part of life at Queen Anne’s School – playing an instrument, composing, singing and listening. For a long time, it has been recognised that participating in musical activities has been linked with improvements in a wide range of educational outcomes. However, the exact nature of these relationships has not been fully investigated and is not completely understood.
We know that music can boost our mood and is a source of pleasure and fun. But, we wondered, what if it helps you to be more ‘intelligent’ and perform more effectively in other areas? Could there be a link between musical participation and academic ability?
For the last four years, Queen Anne’s School has been running a programme called BrainCanDo, an educational neuroscience project which seeks to take what psychologists and neuroscientists have learned about the brain and translate it into educational practice. One of our projects, working with researchers at Goldsmiths University of London, is to dig deeper into how musical participation relates to intelligence. One of the key questions that we are addressing is whether choosing to play an instrument or sing with a choir leads to subsequent gains in academic achievement.
In 2015, Daniel Müllensiefen and colleagues from Goldsmiths published a research paper showing their initial findings, having tested 313 of our pupils aged between 11 and 16. They showed that there were indeed clear associations between musical training, musical listening skills and academic performance. But why? Was it possible that such associations were simply due to a shared common factor such as higher levels of intelligence?
The same group of girls were tested again in 2016 and 2017, enabling the team from Goldsmiths to begin to draw comparisons of both musical abilities and academic achievement in the same sample of adolescent pupils over the course of two academic years.
Analysis of the latest data has revealed that increasing musical activity over the course of one academic year resulted in significant gains in academic achievement. In other words, those pupils who picked up more musical activities also showed the greatest increase in academic achievement.
This is the first study to demonstrate the impact of active musical participation (such as learning to play an instrument or singing with a choir) in a naturalistic setting (i.e. without any special music intervention) upon motivation, engagement in learning and ultimate academic achievement.
It seems likely that the immediate impact of musical activities on academic achievement is the result of attitudinal changes taking place in the students.
Music is a good model for the plasticity of the teenage brain. It can demonstrate that we are not all brilliant but that by learning and practice we can get better. Poor performance is not failure; it is an opportunity to improve. We all know that music is motivational; this research shows that it can genuinely help teenagers change their attitudes towards learning.
Whilst we are interested in the impact of active musical participation on academic performance, we are also keen to measure the extent to which it has broader implications for the wellbeing of our pupils. The most recent findings show that musical activities do have a beneficial impact on the level of engagement our pupils show towards the school and towards their learning more broadly. This is particularly important to us as it suggests that those opportunities provided for pupils to participate in musical activities both inside and outside the classroom have the potential to inspire them and to foster the kind of cognitive engagement and attitude to learning which can be the basis for future academic success.
Musicians are not born brilliant but achieve brilliance through effort, hard work and practice. Using musical engagement as a model the research so far shows there is a link between self-belief and achievement that can help with the development of cognitive and social skills as well as academic achievements.
For the next two years, we will follow the progress of the same group of Queen Anne’s pupils.
If you would like to get involved in the project then please contact either Amy Fancourt or Daniel Müllensiefen. You can find out more about this project and the other research from BrainCanDo at our annual conference taking place at Queen Anne’s School on Wednesday 15th March.
Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen is Reader in Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London and University of Music, Drama and Media, Hanover. He is also director of the MSc programme in Music, Mind and Brain (MMB).
Dr. Amy Fancourt is Head of Psychology at Queen Anne’s School and Research Lead for BrainCanDo, an organisation based at Queen Anne’s School that is working to bring psychology and neuroscience research into educational practice.