The SAT is administered to high school students to measure their readiness for college. Ten years of SAT data indicates that students who participated in music and arts courses scored significantly higher than students who didn’t. Does this mean that giving your children music lessons guarantees a boost in their SAT scores? Music education advocates suggest that it does, but not everyone agrees.
Training the Brain
According to a report on the characteristics of students who perform well on the SAT, students who rank high in prior academic achievement also rank high on the SAT. Music lessons are shown to bolster academic success, and therefore give students a better chance to boost their SAT scores. Because the same parts of the brain used in solving complex math processes are exercised and strengthened in music lessons, music students tend to score higher on math assessments. Music training also develops the region of the brain responsible for recall and retention. This provides a foundation for all academic subjects, especially verbal memory. Music students tend to score higher on verbal assessments.
Tuning Into Abstract Reasoning
The ability to apply abstract reasoning is a relevant skill when taking the SAT. Test takers are required to solve analogies and draw parallels between unconnected events. Young students who have taken keyboard lessons have been shown to have greater abstract reasoning skills than their peers. When music lessons continue over time, these abilities improve, giving music students a greater chance of scoring higher on the SAT.
Focus and Discipline
School performance depends on the ability to pay attention and remain focused. These skills begin to develop early in young students who are trained in instrumental music. Students who continue to participate in music lessons refine these skills and are better able to stay on task. Focused students are better prepared for the specific act of test-taking. Additionally, music majors are reported as feeling better prepared for academic success in college than non-music students, quite possibly because music instruction develops discipline and focus.
A Dissenting Opinion
Despite the amount of research supporting the academic benefits of music education, there are still those who believe the results are inconclusive. Kenneth Elpus, assistant professor of music at the University of Maryland, reports in a recent study that music students tend to be those who outperform others academically, regardless of whether they take music classes. Elpus proposes that once factors such as socioeconomic factors and prior academic achievement are removed, music students do not outperform non-music students on the SAT. However, given that much research supports the fact that music lessons boost the “prior academic achievement” he removes from the equation, parents might feel confident that music lessons will give their students an edge.
Debbie McCarson is a former English teacher and school business administrator. Her articles have appeared in "School Librarians’ Journal" and "The Encyclopedia of New Jersey." A South Jersey native, she is a regular contributor to "South Jersey MOM" magazine.