Suzuki violin

Which has a greater impact: music lessons, dance, or sports?


“There are strong differences in terms of cognitive and non-cognitive skills between adolescents who learned a musical instrument during childhood and those who did not.” *

Of course, there are many benefits from participating in dance or sports, but only playing a musical instrument is associated with higher grades and superior cognitive skills.

Compared to children who participate in sports or dance, children who take music lessons have substantially greater gains in several key areas.

  • intellectual development
  • school grades
  • wide interests, being imaginative, & insightful
  • organization, thoroughness, making plans
  • using time wisely

More than twice as much

According to a 2012 German study, the effects of studying a musical instrument are much stronger on cognitive skills, school grades, and conscientiousness, than the effects of sports and dance.

As  a matter of fact, the research found that music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports or dance does. This research finds that improved academic performance truly is a result of musical training.

While the researchers acknowledged benefits of sports and dance, the strong impact of music lessons on cognitive skills was not replicated for children doing sports or dance. This is not to say that children should not participate in sports or dance.  In this study, there certainly are benefits to both activities.

But for substantial cognitive gains, music lessons win.  Why would you want substantial cognitive gains for your young child? Because cognitive development includes such things as information processing, intelligence, reasoning, language development, and memory. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Goals of the study

Because the motivation for the research was to know the long-term effects of music training on children, all of the students in this study took lessons for 9 years

They tested for the effects of music training in 5 categories:

  1. cognitive skills
  2. school achievement
  3. personality (openness and conscientiousness)
  4. use of time
  5. ambition

Results of the study

  1. cognitive skills: scores are more than twice as high as what would be obtained from playing sports
  2. school achievement: much higher achievement than those who didn’t take music
  3. personality: much greater in openness [having wide interests, and being imaginative and insightful] and conscientiousness [organized, thorough, and planful] 
  4. time use: 13 % less likely to watch TV every day
  5. ambition: 15 % more likely to plan on obtaining an upper secondary school degree and 18 % more likely to apply to university.

Earlier start, greater results

The study was based on 372 German teens who began to take music lessons outside of school before the age of 8 and continued for 9 years. The control group consisted of about 3000.  Outcomes were measured at age 17.

The effects of beginning to play a musical instrument later than the age of 8 were still positive, but weaker than those of children who start to learn a musical instrument earlier. For those who started later,  the effects on cognitive skills, openness and ambition are still relatively strong, but effects on school marks and conscientiousness were not significant.

A summary of other studies that illustrate the unique benefits of music lessons can be found here.

 Photo credit: takacsi75 / Foter / CC BY

“Parents who recognize their child’s potential ability are good parents.” Shinichi Suzuki