YouTube these days is crammed full of studying music channels and we ever took a look at the effect of listening to music while studying in the past. Now there’s a study saying students who take music classes are actually doing better academically.

My knee jerk reaction was instantly going to be that students taking classes generally considered extracurricular are just more likely to care about school in general – but this isn’t the first time a study has come out in favour of studying music and there might be something to this.

A new study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology reports high school students who play musical instruments score significantly higher in science, math, and English exams than their non-musical peers. The authors looked at the academic performance and music engagement (the number of music courses taken) of over 110,000 Canadian students, making the study the largest of its kind.

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Peter Gouzouasis, professor of music education at the University of British Columbia and senior author of the study, has been studying the effects of music education on academic achievement for over two decades. He found that highly engaged music students, those that had taken three or four music classes during high school, were one year ahead in their English, science, and math skills compared to peers who had not taken any music classes.

Other studies have previously reported that better students are more inclined to take music lessons, so they are more likely to outperform their peers regardless of music participation. But Gouzouasis argues his team’s findings suggest “a music phenomenon” — that there is something special about music itself that benefits students.

In Gouzouasis’ study, the differences in exam grades between music and non-music students were consistent regardless of prior academic achievement on similar exams in seventh grade. Other factors, such as gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, or a family’s income level, didn’t make a difference either.

The research so far hasn’t been able to draw any direct conclusions on how exactly studying music would improve skills in other areas. The current theory is it changes the structure and function of the brain which translates into other tasks. The ability to imagine music without hearing it could result in enhanced cognitive benefits, for example.

Gouzouasis and colleagues also looked at the effect of instrumental and vocal music engagement independently, as students in these forms of music have different learning processes. Vocal students do not learn how to play an instrument or how to read musical notation, for example. Both vocal and instrumental performers outperformed their non-musical peers, they found.

However, among those who were engaged in music, students who took instrumental music scored even higher than those involved in vocal studies. The authors think the higher demands of instrumental music education leads to greater cognitive development in these students.