Benefits Beyond The Music

There are two types of research that investigate music’s effect on learning. The first kind are experimental studies where students listen to music and are tested to see if music enhances or detracts from learning. The Mozart Effect, where college students listened to Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D Major, K488 and then were tested for spatial-temporal reasoning (Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky), is the best known of these types of studies. The other body of work is research testing the effect of active music participation on different areas of learning. Since the Mozart Effect only lasted for 10 minutes, it is the second set of studies that we are going to look at, because active music instruction makes for long term changes (Rauscher et al.).

Spatial-Temporal Abilities

There are a number of studies that demonstrate that music training can increase scores on spatial-temporal tasks (Bilhartz, Bruhn, and Olson; Costoa-Giomi; Grokmo and Poorman; Rauscher et al.; Hetland). Spatial-temporal tasks involve a student manipulating images without the physical object in front of him. Spatial reasoning can have practical applications to many areas of science and mathematics. Lois Hetland analyzed 15 studies that explore the relationship of music instruction and spatial skills and found a “strong and reliable” correlation, “The results of this first analysis show that active music instruction lasting two years or less leads to dramatic improvements in performance on spatial-temporal measures. It is remarkable how consistent the effect sizes were across the 15 studies analyzed” (p. 203). She uses an analogy of the amount of improvement the students made in the different studies, “On average, the difference in spatial outcomes between groups with and without music instruction is equivalent to differences in height between 13- and 18-year-old girls (over 1 inch), or about 84 points on the SAT” (p. 221).

There are three suggestions Hetland makes about what types of music instruction will potentially have a greater enhancing effect on spatial abilities:

  1. “It is hypothesized that music would exert its strongest spatial effect on younger children… Therefore it may well be that musical skills are better learned when instruction begins at younger ages” (p. 208).
  2. “…one-on-one music lessons may lead to stronger spatial skills than do group lessons. However, it is important to note that even group instruction… appears to be effective” (p. 210).
  3. “… learning standard notation (at least in combination with piano) further facilitates performance of spatial-temporal tasks” (p. 224).


Other studies have shown a connection between music lessons and improved mathematical skills (Gardiner et al.; Graziano, Peterson, and Shaw; Vaughn). Gardiner et al., when testing children between 5 to 7 years of age, found an improvement in both math and reading scores, “We believe our data shows that… learning arts skills forces mental ‘stretching’ useful to other areas of learning: maths learning advantage in our data could, for example, reflect the development of mental skills such as ordering, and other elements of thinking on which mathematical learning at this age also depends” (p. 284). Another experimental study, conducted by Graziano, Peterson, and Shaw, had great success teaching children proportional math using a combination of music instruction and a computer program called the ST Math Video Game. They comment on some general benefits of the program, “[Classroom] teachers of the Piano-ST  [Spatial-Temporal] Group in the Main Study at school LA reported better attention and concentration abilities in almost all the piano students” (p. 150).

Reading, Spelling, Verbal, and Phonological Skills

Music’s influence on reading and verbal ability has had mixed results. Some studies suggest that music can have a beneficial impact on reading and verbal skills (Butzlaff; Douglas and Willatts; Ho, Cheung, and Chan). Ho, Cheung, and Chan demonstrated that verbal memory is improved in students ages 6 to 15, “A positive correlation between the duration of music training and verbal memory was found, even after controlling for the effects of age and educational level. That is, the more music training during childhood, the better the verbal memory” (p. 443-444). They found that if students stopped studying music, their verbal memory stopped improving, but they did not loose… “the verbal memory advantage… that they had gained prior to discontinuing” (p. 447).

On the reading front, Ron Butzlaff did a meta-analysis of 24 studies of music and reading and concluded, “This analysis demonstrates that there is a strong and reliable association between the study of music and performance on standardized reading/verbal tests” (p. 172). In fact, he went on to elaborate, “The meta-analysis of the correlational studies shows that students studying music do in fact have significantly higher scores on standardized tests (or on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Assessment Test)” (p. 174).

Douglas and Willatts found a relationship between rhythm and spelling/reading, but not between pitch and spelling/reading, “With vocabulary partialled out, reading and spelling no longer showed a significant relationship to pitch, whereas rhythm remained significantly correlated with both these measures” (p. 104). They speculate that the lack of music training in the children lead to the finding that pitch did not effect spelling and reading, and that formal music training might make pitch have a positive effect as well. This is because music training makes pitch processing switch from the right hemisphere of the brain (where non-musicians process pitch) to the left hemisphere (where trained musicians process pitch and where reading is processed as well). They went on to test a pilot intervention study, looking at music’s effect on reading and spelling ability, and concluded, “The findings of this investigation indicates that there is a link between musical ability and reading ability, and the pilot intervention study suggests that training in music skills led to an improvement” (p. 107).

On the other hand, Katie Overy, in a set of experiments, found music to have a positive impact on spelling and phonological skills, but not on reading skills in dyslexic students. Her premise going into the study was that timing skills could influence phonological proficiency in dyslexics and thus also spelling and reading proficiency. Her study showed a connection between the first two skills, but not the latter. Overy speculated that if the music study had lasted longer that there would have been a beneficial effect on reading skills as well. She noted that the children that studied music had an improvement in spelling skills, and that other dyslexia studies (Nicolson and Fawcett) have shown that spelling improvement proceeds reading improvement. Overy concludes, “In summary, this research strengthened the argument that music lessons have the potential to provide a valuable multisensory learning environment for dyslexic children. A particular advantage of music lessons as a language support tool is that they can be used at any stage of literacy development and at any age, from pre-school to high school” (p. 503).


Does this mean that you should have your child take music lessons to give him an academic boost, especially if he is struggling scholastically? If your child is not interested in playing an instrument, the answer is no. Music should be a joy, and if you force him to take lessons when he is not ready, then you take the chance of killing an interest in music for the future. A series of rhythmic and melodic exercises will probably have much the same effect on academic learning as instrumental lessons, “… these results suggest that many kinds of musical instruction lead to spatial learning, and that type of instruction is not limited to any particular program element, musical style, or instructional practice… Spatial skill, it seems, will tag along, but it must never be the focus or the measure of a music program’s success or failure” (Hetland, p. 224). When the non-musical goals start to supersede the musical goals the lessons stop being music instruction and start becoming music therapy. Music is its own goal; the academic boost is an extra bonus.

Having said this, if your child is interested in taking an instrument, then by all means sign him or her up for lessons. Music lessons can be fun, teach self discipline, boost confidence and self esteem, generate a sense of community among ensemble players, and give the student success.


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Butzlaff, R. “Can Music Be Used to Teach Reading?” Journal of Aesthetic Education. 34.3-4 (2000): 167-178.

Costa-Giomi, E. “The Effects of Three Years of Piano Instruction on Children’s Cognitive Development.” Journal of Research in Music Education. 47.3 (1999): 198-212.

Douglas, S., and P. Willatts. “The Relationship Between Musical Ability and Literacy Skills.” Journal of Research in Reading. 17.2 (1994): 99-107.

Gardiner, M.F., A. Fox, F. Knowles, and D. Jeffrey. “Learning Improved by Arts Training.” Nature. 381 (1996): 284.

Graziano, A.B., M. Peterson, and G.L. Shaw. “Enhanced Learning of Proportional Math Through Music Training and Spatial-Temporal Training.” Neurological Research. 21.2 (1999): 139-152.

Gromko, J.E., and A.S. Poorman. “The Effect of Music Training on Preschoolers’ Spatial-Temporal Task Performance.” Journal of Research in Music Education. 46.2 (1998): 173-181.

Hetland, L. “Learning to Make Music Enhances Spatial Reasoning.” Journal of Aesthetic Education. 34.3-4 (2000): 179-238.

Ho, Y., M. Cheung, and A.S. Chan. “Music Training Improves Verbal But Not Visual Memory: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Explorations in Children.” Neuropsychology. 17.3 (2003): 439-450.

Nicolson, R.I., and A.J. Fawcett. “Spelling Remediation for Dyslexic Children: A Skills Approach.” Handbook of Spelling: Theory, Process, and Intervention. Eds. G.D.A. Brown and N.C. Ellis. Wiley: Chichester, 1994. 505-528.

Overy, K. “Dyslexia and Music: From Timing Deficits to Musical Intervention.” New York Academy of Sciences. 999 (2003): 497-505.

Rauscher, F.H, G.L. Shaw, and K.N. Ky. “Music and Spatial Task Performance.” Nature. 365 (1993): 611.

Raucher, F.H., G.L. Shaw, L.J. Levine, E.L. Wright, W.R. Dennis, and R.L. Newcomb. “Music Training Causes Long-Term Enhancement of Preschool Children’s Spatial-Temporal Reasoning.” Neurological Research. 19.1 (1997): 1-8.

Vaughn, K. “Music and Mathematics: Modest Support for the Oft-Claimed Relationship.” Journal of Aesthetic Education. 34.3-4 (2000): 149-166.

© 2006 Geoffrey Keith