LAWRENCE – University of Kansas music professor Martin Bergee believed that if he could control his study for the myriad of factors that could have influenced the previous ones – race, income, education, etc. – it could refute the notion of a link between student music and mathematical success.
Nope. His new to study, “Multilevel Models of the Relationship Between Music Achievement and Reading and Math Achievement,” published in the Journal of Research in Music Education, showed statistically significant associations between the two at the individual level and at the school district level. The fact that the study of over 1,000, mostly middle-aged, students showed no such association at the class or school level only shows how rigorously it was designed by Bergee, professor of music education and music therapy, and his co-author and doctoral student. Kevin Weingarten, currently visiting professor at the University of Washington.
The study has implications for school board members considering budgets that affect music programs. It adds to the body of scientific research showing the links between music and math / reading. And in her conclusion, Bergee even suggests a few specific reasons why it might be.
“There has been this notion for a long time,” said Bergee, “that not only are these areas related, but there is a cause and effect relationship – that when you improve in one area you will, by itself, get better in another area The more you study music, the better you will be at math or reading. That has always been suspect with me.
“I have always believed that the relationship was correlational and not causal. I set out to demonstrate that there are probably a number of contextual variables that influence achievement in any school field – in particular, things like family education level, the student, whether white or not white, and so on.
“These variables are in the article, and there are a lot of them. My intention was to show that relationships are probably wrong, which means that background influences are the primary drivers of relationships, and once those outside influences like demographics etc. are brought under control the relationship essentially goes away.
“But hang in there. To my surprise, not only have they not gone away, but the relationship is really strong. “
Bergee apologizes for the complexity of the study’s design, but said, “This is not an easy thing to determine, as there are influences that can occur at different levels. It can be an influence at the individual person level, but there are also influences that can occur at the classroom, school and school district level, and these are hierarchical. It involves a complex set of analyzes.
Even though he was willing to write “a completely different conclusion,” Bergee said he gave a lot of thought to what the results show.
The authors write that: “Perhaps musical discrimination at a more micro level – heights, intervals, meters – shares a cognitive basis with some patterns of discrimination in speech. Likewise, perhaps the more macro skills of modal and tonal center discrimination share some psychological or neurological space with aspects of mathematical cognition. … The results of this study … at least indicate the possibility.
“Based on the results, the point we have tried to make is that there could be, and there probably are, general learning processes that underpin all academic outcomes, regardless of subject area. Said Bergee. “Success in music, math, reading – there are probably more generalized mental processes that apply to any of these areas.
“Therefore, if your goal is to educate the person – to develop the mind of the person – then you have to educate the whole person. In other words, learning may not be as modular as it is often thought.
It involves more than introducing children to subjects, Bergee said: “Develop them in these subjects. See that learning takes place. See that development is too.
Bergee said his study was not intended to show that learning music would necessarily improve a child’s math or reading performance.
“It wouldn’t be impossible, but really difficult to do a really definitive study,” Bergee said. “My inclination is that it wouldn’t show a strong effect, but that’s what I said about this study. Actually, I don’t know.
“If you want the mind of a young person – or any other person – to develop, then you have to develop it in any way you can,” he said. “You cannot sacrifice some learning styles for other learning styles for any reason, be it financial or societal. “
Photo: Academic success in music is strongly linked to the same in reading and math in a new study by a KU researcher. Credit: iStock photo