How can music make you smart?

Posted: 1st November 2015 by Amy Fancourt

The benefits of active music – playing a musical instrument or singing – and seeing the positive results of practice have been shown to have a link to academic performance and could have implications for future teaching interventions.

Results from a new research project* indicate that there is a chain of relationships that connect academic and musical self-theories, and that intelligence can be related to certain musical listening abilities. The plasticity of the adolescent brain is well known. However, using musical engagement as a model shows there is a link between self-belief and achievement that can help with the development of cognitive and social skills as well as academic achievements.

Goldsmiths, University of London, has embarked on a long-term collaborative research project at Queen Anne’s School in Caversham to explore the co-development of musical competencies, cognitive skills and self-concept in adolescence. The project is part of Queen Anne’s School’s BrainCanDo programme, created by headmistress Mrs Julia Harrington three years ago, and now embedded in the school culture. BrainCanDo is based on the principle that in our role as educators it is important that we utilise cutting-edge research from the field of educational neuroscience to understand brain function and development, mindset and the plasticity of the teenage brain.

In a two-day research-gathering exercise, that will be repeated annually over the next five years, 312 girls between the ages of 11 and 16 took part in a series of tests to ascertain their musical listening abilities and preferences. They also undertook computer-based intelligence tests and completed questionnaires concerning their musical activities at school and home and measures of social and academic self-concept.

Dr Amy Fancourt, Head of Psychology at Queen Anne’s School, said: ‘Music is a good model for the plasticity of the teenage brain. It can demonstrate that we are not all brilliant but that, by learning and practice, we can get better. Poor performance isn’t failure, it’s an opportunity to improve. We all know that music is motivational; this research shows that it can genuinely help teenagers change their attitudes towards learning.

‘If we can teach our teenagers to adopt a positive approach to learning a musical instrument and to recognise that musicians are not born brilliant but achieve brilliance through effort and hard work, then we can expect that positive growth mindset will transfer to attitudes to intelligence and learning more generally. We know from this latest research that those students who adopt a positive growth mindset approach to musical ability adopt the same approach towards intelligence, and are more conscientious and academically high achieving.’

Dr Daniel Müllensiefen who heads the MSC programme in Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths’ Department of Psychology led the project. ‘There have been a number of studies looking at associations between musical training and cognitive skills such as intelligence, memory, reading ability and academic performance. But very few of them track children over a longer amount of time to see how they develop together in adolescence. A special focus of this particular project is to investigate how attitudes and theories of intelligence and academic achievement change when children start to engage with music seriously.’

Through the ongoing study of a group of secondary school aged pupils over time, we hope to be able to demonstrate that learning to play a musical instrument does lead to improvements in attitude, conscientiousness and academic achievement.

Queen Anne’s School will be hosting a ‘Music and the Brain’ conference in June.

Notes for editors
*A full report of the research is published as open access in the latest edition of Frontiers in Psychology (

Queen Anne’s School is an independent boarding and day school for girls aged 11 to 18. It is part of The Grey Coat Hospital Foundation, and is one of the five schools within the Westminster Greycoat Foundation. See

BrainCanDo is a programme that has been developed over the last three years at Queen Anne’s School. Its patron is Lord Adonis. Based on research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and technology, its objectives are to improve cognitive performance and attainment; foster a love of learning; and enable a healthy and productive approach to personal development.

Media enquiries to Sheila Thompson at [email protected] or on 07958 307 637