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Aspiring physicists should rock

Astrophysicist Brian May shows how it’s done

By Hamish Johnston

…or dance or act, if they want to succeed.

If you are a British teenager aspiring to a career in physics, you could be better off at a “School of Rock” or “Fame Academy” than a school that specializes in science — at least according to a study by researchers at the University of Buckingham.

The work, which was reported today by the BBC, reveals that students who attend schools that focus on the arts do better on physics exams than those at schools that were set up to encourage the sciences.

In 2007, for example, about 24% of students at specialist science schools who wrote the “A-level” physics exam achieved an A grade. Compare this to the 36% of pupils who achieved a physics A grade at music schools.

This is a big difference — but you must keep in mind that 124 science schools were polled, whereas only seven music schools were looked at — so I’m not sure of the statistical significance of the 36% figure.

When the team looked at 34 schools that specialized in languages, they found that 26% of students bagged an A in physics. Meanwhile, aspiring physicists enrolled at specialist maths and computing schools managed 24%.

The study focussed on physics and didn’t look at other science exams such as chemistry or biology.

Why do students at music schools do better?

My personal opinion is that it has nothing to do with music, but rather that the music schools simply attract better students than science schools. One hint is that the science schools polled do not select incoming pupils on the basis of academic achievement, whereas there is apparently some degree of selection (based on musical ability) at music schools. And if you have the patience and drive to master a musical instrument, you’ll probably apply the same discipline to your physics studies.

So if you want to succeed at physics don’t moan too much about those piano lessons — they could just further your career.

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  1. Ender

    It may be noted that Imperial College accepts studets to read both Physics AND Music.

  2. Alex

    Even if the music schools are more selective, it still doesn’t say much for the educational value that is being added by the science schools. Presumably the kids at the music schools are spending most of their time focusing on their music, while the kids at the science schools are spending most of their time focusing on what? Physics?
    Most of the physicists I know aren’t particularly musical. Most wouldn’t have gotten in to a music school.

  3. How silly is this? The one byte of actual information here is that the schools who did well are selective. Not exactly an epoch making observation. The current mania for show-biz and celeb studies in schools is, I am afraid, just another aspect of the dumb-down culture, it’s impact on acievement in any intellectually demanding subject can only, at best, be zero.

  4. catch 22

    The report fails to address the critical issue of standards. Do Arts Schools and Science Schools use basically the same standardized tests and apply the same grading policies? It wouldn’t surprise me, if a school whose focus is music were a bit more lenient than another, pushing students through Quantum Field Theory (that may not even exist in the former).

  5. Studies have shown that intense piano or violin practice is beneficial to general learning. One reason may be the abstract nature of music theory, another that the constant search for correct phrasing is a bit like trying to understand a difficult passage of mathematics.
    I spent quite a few years in the National Youth Orchestra and the vast majority of my colleagues had no problems with school exams, despite the hours of time spent on music practice

  6. Dr David Lee

    This is interesting.
    I became a church organist the same year I entered university.
    I think a balance of interest makes better use of our brain, perhaps.

  7. Ender

    catch 22 said: “The report fails to address the critical issue of standards. Do Arts Schools and Science Schools use basically the same standardized tests and apply the same grading policies?”
    No, it doesn’t. They are talking about the results in the Physics A Levels, which are national standardised tests.

  8. Flor

    Cormac O’Raifeartaigh said: “Studies have shown that intense piano or violin practice is beneficial to general learning.”
    Is guitar practice beneficial too?

  9. It is also well known that Einstein used to play the violin, and was quite a good player for an amateur.


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