The Effect of Musical Training on Learning Mathematics

For decades, there’s been a buzz in educational circles about the positive relationship which exists between music and mathematics. Some of this research has examined the effect of listening to classical music during math lessons and before math tests. It’s unearthed positive results. This particular wrinkle in scholarship and the positive correlations identified between music and math has been labeled The Mozart Effect. However intriguing, The Mozart Effect only lasts a short period of time. Data shows the positive effect last only 10-12 minutes. And it has no long-term bearing on the ability of students to learn math. On the other hand, there is an abundance of research which demonstrates that it’s not listening to music that has a positive effect on learning mathematics. The real impact on a student’s ability to learn mathematics lies in musical training.

Music and Spatial-Temporal Reasoning

The first comprehensive study of the effect of musical training on mathematical achievement was conducted in 1997. Led by psychologist Frances Rauscher, the experiment took a group of 78 preschool students and separated them into three groups. One group received piano keyboarding lessons. A second group received computer instruction. A third acted as a control group. The three groups were given pre-instruction and post-instruction tests on spatial-temporal reasoning, which is a crucial factor in the acquisition and understanding of math and high-level mathematical concepts. The results of the test showed only group showed significant improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning. Guess which? The group that received piano keyboarding instruction. The authors of the study concluded:

“This suggests that music training produces long-term modifications in underlying neural circuitry in regions not primarily concerned with music….we propose that an improvement of the magnitude reported may enhance the learning of standard curricula, such as mathematics and science.”

Since the publication of this study, numerous papers have appeared which support the hypothesis that music training can improve student achievement in mathematics. Other papers have appeared which identify positive correlations between music training, overall cognitive ability, and higher scores across IQ subtests. Some even show higher scores on full-scale IQ.

The Importance of Music in Schools: Full STEAM Ahead

Today’s public education funding environment is in the grips of a near-obsession with closing the achievement gap which exists between the U.S. and countries in Europe and Asia in the subject areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The motivations behind the drive to close this achievement gap are both practical and well-founded. The U.S. does indeed need to prepare its current students with the skills to compete in the tech-dependent 21st century economy. The focus on STEM subjects at the expense of fine arts programs, particularly music, may prove to be counter-productive in the long run.

As research comes to light which elucidates the positive correlations between not only music and mathematics, but also between fine arts in general and overall student achievement, it is incumbent upon everyone to recognize a new movement in pedagogy known as STEAM. Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. The difference between STEM and STEAM is only one letter. A simple A. But the reincorporation of fine arts classes in support of today’s curriculum could make all the difference. To a generation of students overwhelmed by the pressure to excel, it may also make things feel more balanced.