Does Studying Music Help SAT Scores?

High school students are well aware that they will need sharp reading, writing and math skills to do well on the SAT. The SAT directly tests reading comprehension, grammar, editing skills, mathematics reasoning and computation. There’s also an optional writing test. It would seem logical, then, that students should spend their high school years on extra English and math courses rather than electives in the arts, which are not tested.

Not so fast! A growing body of research indicates that students who study music score significantly better on a variety of assessments, including the SAT. Should a high school freshman join the band or start piano lessons as part of preparing for the SAT? Here’s a look at the research.

 Benefits of Music Instruction

Teenage girl playing piano at homeStudies show that music lessons offer improvement in mathematical and spatial reasoning, both key aspects of problem-solving. Music training also is linked to better memory and reading skills. Most researchers conduct their studies on younger children. It appears that the earlier music training begins, and the longer a child practices an instrument or studies music theory, the greater the academic benefits. The most lasting effects are on reading and verbal abilities.

Music and the SAT

It’s not surprising then, that a College Board Study showed that students who participated in music scored an average of 31 points above average in reading, 23 points above average in math, and 31 points above average in writing on the 2012 SAT. While those results are impressive, researchers like Kenneth Elpus caution that other factors, like previous academic success and positive attitudes about school, might have more to do with high SAT scores than music lessons. K. Vaughn and E. Winner looked at 12 years of SAT results and concluded that students who participated in the arts for four years in high school performed significantly better on the SAT, especially on the verbal section. Vaughn and Winner are careful to point out that, although their research doesn’t prove that studying music causes better SAT scores, they feel the correlation is significant.

SAT Help and Preparation

Given the apparent advantages, should parents encourage their children to learn an instrument as part of an SAT prep program? Probably not. Most research shows that the greatest benefits of music lessons come early in life as young brains develop; high school students may be too old to reap the kind of reading and memory improvements seen in preschoolers who study music. Students who are already passionate about music, however, should certainly not give it up in favor of test prep. They should continue enjoying their lessons, confident that the overall cognitive development and self-discipline from music classes will serve them well on the SAT.