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The impact of instrumental music learning on attainment at age 16: a pilot study

The Music Teachers Association's second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the editorial by Keith Swanwick and John Paynter – ‘Teacher Education and Music Education: an editorial view’ (1993)

About this series

Dr Steven Berryman, Curriculum Lead for the Music Teachers Association (MTA), has launched a collective blogging project working with the editors of the British Journal of Music Education (BJME), Martin Fautley and Ally Daubney.

Martin, Ally and Steven have curated a selection of articles from the Journal highlighting some of the key debates in Music Education in the classroom.

Teachers have an article to read each week, and can submit a response by the end of the week. Responses are gathered together to form one blog post shared on MUSIC:ED.

Teacher Education and Music Education: an editorial view

The Music Teachers Association’s second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by Susan Hallam and Kevin Rogers – ‘The impact of instrumental music learning on attainment at age 16: a pilot study’ (2016).


There is increasing international evidence that playing a musical instrument has a positive impact on attainment at school, but little research has been undertaken in the UK. This study addresses this drawing on data on attainment at age 11 and 16 relating to 608 students, 115 of whom played a musical instrument. T

he findings showed that the young people playing an instrument showed greater progress and better academic outcomes than those not playing with the greatest impact for those playing the longest. The findings are considered in relation to the possible reasons for this, and the implications for education.


Hawys Elis-Williams

  • Head of Music, Pimlico Academy – @HawysEW

I remember reading this article when it was first published. I remember feeling great joy and some relief that yes, what I do is inherently valuable and useful to young people.

What then completely shocks me is why has very few people listened and why do we still need to fight for a great music education which includes the opportunity to play an instrument? And if we are serious about closing the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, it needs to be for all.

Of course, there is pledge for all children to learn an instrument in the National Plan for Music Education and while I don’t know the figures I am sure that the majority of students across the country have had the opportunity to learn an instrument at some point.

However, too often instrumental programmes are at the whim of sporadic funding and students do not have the time to really progress on an instrument. The article states that students that have learnt an instrument for at least 4 years had the best the results at 16.

The introduction to playing instruments should and generally does happen at primary level. In my experience, one of the main issues with instrumental programmes in primary schools (and secondary schools) is that they have not been planned with a long term plan. For example, in one school year 3 have a wonderful ‘wider ops’ chance to learn an instrument for a year but what happens to them in year 4/5/6? Will the following year 3 have the same opportunity? Maybe a school has taken up the offer of having free instrumental lessons for all of key stage 2 through a funding scheme but what happens when that has run out or there is a new head that has different priorities?

It’s not enough to say that all children will have the opportunity to learn an instrument. Children should have the opportunity to learn an instrument for a long time. Exactly how long is up for debate but they need to have the opportunity to really get to know the instrument and to progress, to play different styles and pieces, to play in ensembles, and to perform regularly.

It’s encouraging to see so many articles in the news recently about how important music (as well as drama, art and sport) will be in the recovery curriculum. My concern is that will be a short-lived boost in ‘music projects’ for young people without the thought of having long-term development for an excellent music education for all (including the chance to play an instrument).

Two years ago I heard a lecture by Chris Philpott at a PTI day. He asked at the beginning for us to write down why music was important to us. At the end of the lecture he asked us to say what we had written and pointed out that no one had said ‘because it makes me better at maths’ or ‘because it makes be better at languages’. I think about this a lot and he’s right but scores of music philosophers, sociologists and psychologists have tried to explain what music means to us without coming to one conclusion.

I find the suggestions Hallam gives in her discussion about why learning an instrument can improve attainment very interesting. Unpicking some of the psychological and sociological reasons why music might make us better at other things.

Music is integral to the human experience, because it means so much to us but maybe also because it develops us (which, in part, ‘makes me better at maths’). This is why it should be central to an excellent education system.


Catherine Barker

  • Head of Music and Performing Arts, United Learning – @United_Music1

Instrumental tuition: a proven tool for school improvement

Given that there is high statistical significance between GCSE performance and learning a musical instrument, it leads us to the question: why don’t all schools draw on this recognised method of raising academic attainment?

Some possible reasons why not:

  1. It’s expensive, especially when delivered 1-2-1 and with every student requiring equipment both at home, and at school, for practice. (At £20 a lesson, 35 weeks per year, that’s a minimum of £700 per child, per instrument.)
  2. It requires space – not every school has space for visiting music tutors for all students – think of the specialist music schools with their corridors of bespoke practice rooms.
  3. Students miss their timetabled lessons to fit instrumental teaching into their school day. The timetable is often seen as sacrosanct, and schools are loathe to bring disruption to the teaching day.
  4. Great teaching staff can be hard to find, and to hold onto – touring/gigging musicians make fantastic teachers but their schedules need flexibility which doesn’t always lend well to a school timetable.
  5. Students don’t easily see themselves as instrumentalists, without role models within school or the community, and wouldn’t necessarily self-select to learn an instrument, especially when they can learn independently and informally.

Given this, there are schools in England that are addressing this and providing universal instrumental schemes for their students – both at primary and secondary phases. Mostly, this is through careful and expert delivery of large group tuition, choosing instruments and resources that suit this approach.

Great examples of this include:-

And at primary, there’s the innovative string scheme at Gallions Primary School.

Whilst these approaches are not straightforward, and still require additional financial resources, they demonstrate what is possible. It would be interesting to see more research on the impact of these types of programmes in secondary schools – and the return on investment (depending on the structure of the programme, the cost is approx 1.5 additional teachers per year). Perhaps they do offer good value for money as a tool for school improvement?

Vaughan Fleischfresser

It is my belief that learning to play an instrument contributed greatly to my development both as a learner and as a person more broadly. This article evidences the strong desire present in many countries to prove beyond any doubt the positive impact that comes from learning an instrument. Conversely, it shows that the evidence isn’t always 100% conclusive. For this brief reflection I’m going to focus on the quote, ‘If active engagement with music increases positive perceptions of self, this may transfer to other areas of study and increase motivation to persist”’

The greatest gift learning an instrument gave me is found in this quote. I’m not academically gifted when it comes to the pillars of English, Science, or Maths. However, it was through learning an instrument that my perceptions of self, motivation, and desire to persist and succeed were supercharged. Learning an instrument and playing in ensembles bred confidence and belief. As this confidence and belief grew, so too did my motivation to succeed and persist. Did it make me academically enhanced? Probably not. What it did, however, was make me more willing to embrace the challenge of being the best that I could, which in turn undoubtedly lifted my academic performance.

Also discussed is the potential impact of the home and family environment in contributing to the impact learning an instrument has on academic development. I had a blessed home and family environment, filled with love and opportunity. Yet, on reflection, it wasn’t until I started to learn an instrument that the fire was lit, so to speak. And here I refer to the quote used as my reflective muse. I was given every opportunity to succeed, from sport, to deportment and grooming, to public speaking, to outdoor education, to dance, to supplementary academic activities. Yet, it was the active engagement in music that helped ignite positive perceptions of self, which most definitely transferred to other areas of study.

Could this have happened through any activity? Quite possibly, yet there weren’t many other activities left for me to try growing up. There is no doubt in my mind that learning an instrument over a sustained period improves the lives of young people. What that benefit is, and how we quantify it, is as individualistic as each child blessed with the opportunity to learn an instrument. May this opportunity be afforded to each and every child for the duration of their education. Whatever the benefits, benefits there will be.