Does Classical Music Affect the Average Student's Test Scores?

by Melissa Goldsmith

    Universities and foundations have conducted various experiments as to whether classical music affects student testing performance. The results of these studies have been promising, but have been proven to be controversial. No study has concluded that classical music affects the average student's test scores. Nonetheless, results indicate that the active study of classical music improves test-taking skills.

    Mozart Effect Debunked

    In 1993, the “Mozart Effect,” an experiment that had questionable results, focused on improved intelligence test performance by undergraduates who passively listened to Mozart’s sonatas. According to San Francisco Classical Voice, ambitious media, politicians and entrepreneurs were responsible for exaggerating and oversimplifying the study’s results. The problems with the aims of the “Mozart Effect” were the one-size-fits-all approach, which led to age-inappropriate music activities for children, the endorsement of passive listening to classical music and the creation and sales of misleading educational products.

    More Inconclusive Findings

    The Dana Foundation studied the impact of studying music and test scores and concluded that scores were improved. However, according to Greater Good, affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, these findings have also been controversial. Greater Good argues that reasons for advocacy for the arts are rooted in emphasis on test areas such as math, reading and writing. This emphasis occurs at the cost of nontested subjects such as music and art. The problem is that it is difficult to collect hard evidence and reach solid conclusions because there are too many variables, such as individual students' learning interests and weaknesses, which will differ for every study subject.

    Not Composed for Test Taking

    Greater Good points out that in a Gallup Poll, 85 percent of Americans stated they believed that children in music programs were likely to have better grades and achieve higher test scores. These children are in music programs; children who just listen to music while testing do not receive the same benefits. The fact is that classical music was never meant to be listened to passively and within a multitasking context. Classical music played during exams can be seen as being as much a distraction as it could be a benefit to students who need to relax.

    Classical Music and Active Learning

    Active learning by definition is a more engaging type of learning. Children in music programs that focus on active listening benefit from an enhancement in student engagement, which furthers learning. Active listening differs greatly from the passive listening which most experiments have emphasized. The real issue might be not that the results are controversial, but that the experiments themselves are flawed. For the experiments to be valid, researchers must find ways to teach students what to listen for in a classical piece. They could also test students' understanding of classical music's historical context and identifying two themes for the purpose of contrast. Examples of transferable skills would include thoughtful listening and intelligent engagement with other cultures. Researchers could then test to see which of these transferable skills best improves test taking.

    Classical Music and Test Skills

    According to the National Association for Music Education and the Music Empowers Foundation, studying music in a school environment through individual and group participation helps students become responsible, through practicing, taking care of an instrument, learning a song and expressing newly attained knowledge. All these activities are possible with well-thought-out selections of classical or popular music: Either leads to knowledge through attaining better focus, honing problem solving skills and building stamina in practice. These positively affect real-time test taking.

    About the Author

    A musicologist and librarian, Melissa Goldsmith earned her PhD in musicology and Certificate in Advanced Studies in library and information science in 2002 from Louisiana State University. Her academic articles and reviews have also been published since that year. Goldsmith enjoys teaching tap dancing, music, film studies, embroidery and gardening.

    Photo Credits

    • Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images