This special feature was written by Nancy Le Nezet, Interim Head of School at Swiss International School – Qatar and previously published for the school’s newsletter – SISQ Review. 

Numerous studies have shown that there is a correlation between music education and levels of achievement in academic areas such as mathematics and reading.

Critics, however, often point out that the correlation between music and academic achievement is likely to be affected by a large variety of other factors that make any sort of causal link between music and academics very hard to establish: for example, children whose parents are involved enough to encourage them to study a musical instrument are very likely to be the same parents who encourage their children in other academic areas.

Music Cello stock imageThis is exactly what Martin Bergee of the University of Kansas set out to demonstrate, by controlling a wide variety of variables such as parental education, ethnicity, neighbourhood etc. Bergee was trying to show that such variables were likely responsible for the correlation between level of achievement in music on the one hand, and in reading and mathematics, on the other hand. Bergee used 1,000 students in the US, most in middle school, and studied both their individual achievement and that of students at district level.

To Bergee’s surprise, controlling the background variables did not eliminate the link between level of achievement in music and other academic areas. The correlation between musical education and higher levels of achievement in reading and mathematics remained, however much he tried to limit the influence of those background variables. Bergee himself accepts that we do not know exactly why such a link exists, although he explores a couple of cognitive possibilities related to the type of training the brain has to undergo in order to learn music.

The multiple controls involved in the study and the fact that the results contradicted Bergee’s initial hypothesis make it a convincing study indeed. Although the study remains correlational, it points towards a likely causal relationship between musical education and higher achievement levels in other academic areas, and adds its weight to the multiple previous studies indicating a similar relationship.

This study reinforces the idea that a broad curriculum that includes a robust arts programme, including music, is likely to be beneficial to student achievement in the more traditional subjects.

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