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New RCM Neuroscience Study Reveals Connections Between Music and School Grades

New RCM Neuroscience Study Reveals Connections Between Music and School Grades

Published on December 12, 2022

Evidence suggests the same cognitive and perceptual skills underlie both domains 

Taylor Academy Students

By Dr. Sean Hutchins 

A new study by The Royal Conservatory Neuroscience Research Centre has provided further evidence for a link between musical activities and academic achievement.  

A large-scale survey of more than 5000 Royal Conservatory students found that those who were engaged in higher levels in the RCM system also reported higher grades in school. This correlation was evident across elementary and high school, and remained even when controlling for differences in age.  

In addition, this same study also found that students who achieved higher grades on their RCM exams also reported doing better in school. Together, these findings suggest a connection between musical achievement and academic achievement.  

This is further evidence that the same cognitive and perceptual skills underlie both domains — practice in music should transfer to academics (and vice versa). 

Strengthening this case, the same survey also showed a connection between school grades and the extra time spent in musical activities. Factors associated with higher grades included practicing for longer, playing a second instrument, and participating in other extracurricular musical activities, such as band, choir, or other ensembles and performances. This indicates that academic achievement, musical achievement, and spending time in musical activities all go hand in hand.  

RCM students reported quite high grades in school (averaging an A- level, overall), and this is consistent with the rest of the evidence that music participation and study are related to academic achievement; however, this study did not explicitly compare musicians to non-musicians. Many of the musicians surveyed also indicated that they participated in other extracurricular activities, such as sports, volunteering, or other arts; this participation was also associated with higher grades in school, which may point to a role in motivation as another common factor across domains. 

Many of these same factors that predict school grades also help to predict scores on RCM exams. Unsurprisingly, students who report practicing more often and spending more time in music lessons received higher exam scores. However, this study also showed that how students practice can make a big difference as well. Students who reported spending more of their practice time on technical and ear-training skills received higher RCM exam scores.  

Accumulated practice makes a difference, too. Students who reported starting their primary instrument earlier in life tended to reach higher levels in the RCM system, even when controlling for age. (For further evidence on the long-term impact of early childhood music lessons, see our findings from our Smart Start study). 

Ultimately, these data present a clear picture about how music and academics are linked. Practicing and performing music requires mental skills such as memory, attention, and fine-grained perception — skills that are also required for academic achievement. This retrospective study confirms the findings of many other experimental studies showing cognitive benefits of music training. And while there are certainly other factors that can affect academic achievement, honing cognitive and perceptual skills through music seems to be one important method in improving children’s academic outcomes. 

Sean Hutchins
Dr. Sean Hutchins is a neuroscientist and the Director of Research at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from McGill University, studying music and the mind. His current work examines the role of musical training and experience on cognitive and linguistic abilities.