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Save The Music’s old tag line was “Music Equals Brainpower.” But how does music improve the mind? How does playing music affect the brain? Is it actually true that playing an instrument makes you smarter?

Amongst musicians, teachers and parents, there is a strong intuitive sense that music education and academic performance are linked. But are there studies on music and learning or music and intelligence? How does music help the brain? How does music help you learn? What music makes you smart?

Here are three very rigorous research pieces and music articles for students on how music helps you learn, plus links and additional resources on music and intelligence if you want to dig in more.

1. University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, Arts Education and Social-Emotional Learning Outcomes Among K-12 Students (2019)

Summary: The authors reviewed more than 200 studies on arts education spanning six decades. They also conducted focus groups and interviews with key participants in the arts education process—including educators, administrators, students, and parents—to evaluate evidence of the effects of arts education on social-emotional development in school and after-school settings. They found a widespread belief that arts education contributes to children’s and adolescents’ social-emotional development:

Social-Emotional Learning: Exposure to arts opportunities allows students and teachers to engage with one another in a way that often stands in contrast to how they engage with each other in the context of regular academic instruction and that provides rich opportunities for social-emotional learning.

Why You Should Dig Deeper: In addition to the findings (including a section specific to music), the literature review cites a comprehensive cross-section of studies on the impact of music and arts education and the question of does music help you learn.

2. National Endowment for the Arts – Catterall, J. S., Dumais, S. A., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2012). The arts and achievement in at-risk youth: Findings from four longitudinal studies.

Summary: The report’s authors use four large national databases to analyze the relationship between arts involvement and academic and social achievements, specifically:

Academic Achievement: Teenagers and young adults of low socioeconomic status (SES) who have a history of in-depth arts involvement show better academic outcomes than do low-SES youth who have less arts involvement. They earn better grades and demonstrate higher rates of college enrollment and attainment.

Civic Engagement: Young adults who had intensive arts experiences in high school are more likely to show civic-minded behavior than young adults who did not. They take an interest in current affairs, as evidenced by comparatively high levels of volunteering, voting, and engagement with local or school politics. In many cases, this difference appears in both low and high-SES groups.

Why You Should Dig Deeper: The report notes “a standard weakness of the literature has been a dearth of large-scale, longitudinal studies following the same populations over time, tracking the outcomes of students who received intensive arts exposure or arts learning compared with students who did not. This work is an attempt to fill that gap.”  In my experience it is also the most frequent answer to the question “isn’t there a big, gold standard study out there that shows that playing a musical instrument makes you smarter?”

3. Harvard Project Zero, Reviewing Education and the Arts Project (REAP), The Arts and Academic Improvement: What the Evidence Shows (2001)

Summary: REAP conducted a comprehensive search for all studies from 1950-1999. 188 reports investigating the impact of the arts on learning and questions around how does music improve the mind, music and intelligence, and does playing an instrument make you smarter.

Music & Academic Achievement: Three areas were found in which a substantial number of studies have demonstrated a clear causal link between education in an art form and achievement in a non-arts, academic area – including “Learning to Play Music and Spatial Reasoning.”  Small causal relationships were also found between learning to play music and achievement in reading and math.

Why You Should Dig Deeper: This looks at causal links.  In addition to a call for more and better research, the authors issue a strong call suggesting that what music makes you smart or how does music help you learn may not be the right questions:

“Let’s stop requiring more of the arts than of other subjects. The arts are the only school subjects that have been challenged to demonstrate transfer as a justification for their usefulness. If we required physical education to demonstrate transfer to science, the results might be no better, and probably would be worse. So, it is notable that the arts can demonstrate any transfer at all.”


– Does playing an instrument make you smarter? NAMM “Music Matters”

– How does music help the brain? Northwestern Project on Music and The Brain

– What music makes you smart?  PBS Kids

– How does music improve the mind? New England Board of Higher Education


Via our board member Laurie Schell, here is The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, a national database of academic performance. They’ve developed a series of very cool data visualizations looking at educational opportunity in your school or community.