Music students excel in algebra

Middle school students who study music do better in algebra, concludes a study by Barbara Helmrich of Baltimore’s College of Notre Dame. From Miller-McCune Online:

Students who studied a musical instrument did the best, followed by students who sang in a choir. Those who didn’t study music had the lowest algebra scores.  The effect was especially strong for black students.

Middle-school music instruction “takes place during a time (age 10-12) in which a proliferation of new synapses occurs in the developing brain,” Helmrich writes. She thinks music helps form and strengthen new synapses.

The particularly robust results for African-American students suggests “offering music education in middle school might present an alternative strategy for narrowing the achievement gap” between students of different races, Helmrich writes in the Journal of Adolescent Research.

Of course, there could be correlation-causation issues lurking.

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  1. Thomas Sowell discusses the connection between math and music in his __Late Talking Children__. Children who exhibit the syndrome, which shares symptoms with autism and asberger’s syndrome, commonly feature “the three ms”, music, math, and memory, and often have parents in mathematically-related professions (engineering, economics, accounting). Sowell strongly suggests that there’s probably a strong hereditary component common to both math ability and music ability.

  2. georgelarson says:

    Norbert Wiener once said that mathematical talent passes from father to son in law. He had all daughters and they all married mathematicians.

  3. Somehow, I doubt that the music study causes the better algebra outcomes. It seems more likely, from my experience, that the kids who study music are different from those who don’t.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    It seems more likely, from my experience, that the kids who study music are different from those who don’t.


    Students who study Latin do better in general than students who don’t.

    Students who are involved in after-school athletics do better in school than students who don’t.

    Students who take Algebra-II do better in school than students who don’t.

    I *bet* that the students who are on the chess team and speech-and-debate team do better in school than the average student.

    Unfortunately, I think that the causality all runs the wrong way to use this data to improve things.

    -Mark Roulo

  5. Students who study music tend to be students who are willing to apply themselves to something that doesn’t yield immediate awards. This, it strikes me, is important. Those kinds of students are apt to do better in school, because they have learned to be persistent.

    But I have seen interesting anecdotal evidence suggesting that low-income students who become serious about a musical instrument can transfer that seriousness to their studies.

    That, after all, was a major selling point of the Harlem Violin School.

  6. Mark, I agree and have seen the same argument made for debate/speech and for sports – haven’t heard about chess yet, but it makes sense. As far as sports are concerned, I’ll bet that it varies across sports. Football and basketball probably don’t get the same correlation as do swimming, tennis, golf, gymnastics etc. I remember hearing that Thomas Jefferson (math/sci magnet in DC area) has a “surprising” number of state championships – not so surprising when you find that they are disproportionately in swimming (work ethic to the max). I also know of top academic schools with many championships in tennis. Nice assortment of proxy variables for identifying the top students, but not a magic bullet (for which the ed world is perpetually searching).

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    I have heard, no sources come to mind, over the years that there is a fundamental connection between numeracy and musical ability.

    More than, say, between numeracy and language expression or athletics.

  8. Very successful “school” programs in swimming and tennis (also gymnastics, soccer, hockey, wrestling, golf etc.) are typically not developing those athletes. Those sports – and perhaps others – have such a strong club structure,from young ages through HS, that the schools really do little coaching, either in terms of skills or tactics. Kids arrive with both. The top swimmers and tennis players at schools I have known did not practice with the school team at all, with the possible exception of relay events in swimming. Despite what many/most school coaches think, they are pretty irrelevant and the ones who also coach elite club teams admit it. The kids are inherently different and it has nothing to do with the school.

  9. Cranberry says:

    Some charter schools require all students to study music. Music instruction is provided to all, regardless of income. If some admit by lottery, a comparison between admitted and not admitted students could help to clarify the correlation question.

    In this study, noting a correlation between music study and better scores does not prove that music study was a cause for the improved academic skills.

  10. Yep. I taught at a school of the arts, and found that those who did well on the more math-related parts of science were, almost invariably, the instrumental music majors. I didn’t see the connection for the vocal music majors, however.

  11. Bill Leonard says:

    From reading all of the above, I’m not sure that anything correlates to anything, beyond parental involvement and encouragement, a certain amount of native intelligence to start with, and an interest on the student/young person’s part in what is going on around him or her.

    FWIW, my wife and I are both college graduates (now retired);
    both our sons are eagle Scouts; both were active in high school and college sports (albeit rugby, at the club level, in college); both were active in speech and drama in high school. One was on the high school chess team.

    Both are college graduates; one has a degree political science and an MBA with marketing emphasis; the other has a degree in economics.

    Both are successful, happily married adults with children of their own, and are doing well.


  12. I think instrumental music asks the students to genuinely learn the language of musical notation rather than by ear, as the vocal musicians can do on the K-12 level. I can sing along in church just fine, but I can’t read music well enough to play the piano anymore.

    It could be a little bit of both correlation and causation. More motivated students are attracted to music, and music also enhances their math abilities. In any case, I don’t think this would be too difficult for cognitive scientists to test physically.

  13. 2 Cents says:

    Science Daily (Mar 15, 2009) – Children exposed to a multi-year programme of music tuition involving training in increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal, and practical skills display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers, according to a study published in the journal Psychology of Music.

    Science Daily (Nov. 5, 2008) — A Harvard-based study has found that children who study a musical instrument for at least three years outperform children with no instrumental training—not only in tests of auditory discrimination and finger dexterity (skills honed by the study of a musical instrument), but also on tests measuring verbal ability and visual pattern completion (skills not normally associated with music).

  14. Roger Sweeny says:

    2 Cents,

    What those studies mean is highly dependent on:

    1: Why did the children get the musical training. Did they or their parents want them to do it? Or were they randomly selected?

    2: How did the study handle kids who dropped out? People who stick with an instrument or “a multi-year programme of music tuition” are differnt from those who start but stop after a while.

  15. Roger Sweeny says:

    Even if you randomly select the kids, by the end of three years the groups may be very different.

  16. The USS California was one of the ships sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and her crew was parceled out to whatever units needed manpower. The members of the ship’s band were assigned to the Navy’s codebreaking unit because, by coincidence, the number of band members matched the number of men requested. Fortunately they were very successful at their new job. Apparently, many of the skills transferred.


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