Tuned in: Music truly is instrumental to math and reading achievement in children

LAWRENCE, Kan. — It can be hard to admit when we are wrong, but sometimes the strongest proponents are originally among the ranks of the non-believers. Such is the case for some music professors who set out to debunk the theory that music can play a major role in learning. A recent study reveals having an ear for music really does help children with their reading and math skills.

Although previous studies have uncovered a relationship between musical and academic achievement, researchers of the current investigation wanted more proof.

“There has been this notion for a long time that not only are these areas related, but there’s a cause-and-effect relationship,” says lead study author Martin J. Bergee from the University of Kansas in a media release. “The more you study music, the better you’re going to be at math or reading. That’s always been suspect with me.”

Bergee and co-author Kevin Weingarten from the University of Washington created a complex controlled study that included such factors as race, income, and education. The team was sure that greater scrutiny would break the so-called link between students’ musical and mathematical achievements.

A sweet-sounding surprise

More than 1,000 students, mainly in middle school, participated in the study. The results caught the researchers completely by surprise. There is indeed a statistically significant relationship between musical achievement and math and reading ability. Researchers add this association exists at both the individual and school-district levels.

“I’ve always believed that the relationship is correlational and not causational,” says Bergee. “My intention was to show that background influences are the main drivers of the relationships, and once those outside influences, like demographics, etc., are controlled for, the relationship essentially disappears. Much to my surprise, not only did they not disappear, but the relationships are really strong.”

Study authors say the information discovered is important for school boards considering the fate of music programs during budget planning. Despite the original intentions of the study, it actually contributes more credence to the growing body of evidence linking music to better school performance.

Bergee offers a possible explanation for how our brains process these different types of information.

“Perhaps music discrimination at a more micro level–pitches, intervals, meters–shares a cognitive basis with certain patterns of discrimination in speech. Similarly, perhaps the more macro skills of modal and tonal center discrimination share some psychological or neurological space with aspects of math cognition,” the professor of music education and music therapy suggests.

The argument for keeping music in schools

Researchers add that the findings at least point to the possibility that there are many interrelated ways to learn. Although the study results do not prove that learning music will automatically improve a child’s math or reading skills, it does indicate that children should be receiving a well-rounded education.

“Learning may not be as modular as it is often thought to be,” Bergee explains. “It implies more than introducing children to subjects. Develop them in these subjects. See that learning is taking place. See that development is, too.”

“If you want a young person’s–or any person’s–mind to develop, then you need to develop it in all ways it can be developed. You can’t sacrifice some modes of learning to other modes of learning for whatever reason, be it financial or societal,” Bergee concludes.

The results of the study are published in the Journal of Research in Music Education.

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