Music teachers today are under more pressure than ever to demonstrate how the arts remain relevant in a STEM-focused world. You may, for example, have been asked about the ‘Mozart Effect’ at parent-teacher conferences (the effect being an idea that music learning contributes to STEM*-related learning outcomes). But how do we separate fact from fiction? Can music truly make a difference to a student’s overall grades, or help them become the next Einstein? What should we say to parents or administrators who insist on linking music learning outcomes with STEM-related outcomes? BandLab’s Jessica Vas offers MUSIC:ED readers some guidance.
Whilst we may not be best-placed to explain the Mozart Effect (that science is better left to specialist researchers and academics), here are some general principles that might help you navigate that conversation.
What the science says
Let’s get the first controversy out of the way. At present, there is no definitive academic study that irrefutably proves the link between the improvement of music skills and stronger math skills. Experts seem to agree that there remain too many variables to measure, over too many years, to even run such a study. Professor Tim Gowers from Cambridge University says that the effect of music learning on maths skills is ‘modest’ and even ‘grossly exaggerated’ at times, which may be disappointing news for parents who want their child’s trombone practice to lead to higher maths or chemistry scores.
But there’s good news too. Music and maths have always had a complementary relationship. And of course, there remain a multitude of benefits for learners of any age in music. For younger students, we can point to nursery rhymes that contain essential mathematical theories: a simple song such as ‘baa baa black sheep’ or ‘12 Days of Christmas’ use ideas like matching and comparing, patterns and sequences, and counting. Add movement, and that’s significant food for thought for a young mind.
At a broader level, Nadine Gaab, principal investigator at the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital, says that when anyone plays a musical instrument, ‘your brain shows changes, mainly in the motor and auditory cortices’ – where students are engaging their auditory and physical senses at the same time. Looking at music learning from this perspective may make it easier to explain to parents (and students) how a seemingly simple musical exercise engages students’ mental and physical faculties for learning outcomes.
Plus, music, maths and science go way back.
Many forms of music can be related to a maths-based structure
The general public may forget that many forms of music – Western Classical, the Japanese Pentatonic Scale and Hindu Raga just to name a few – can be related to a maths-based structure. When engaging with music class sceptics, it may help to remind them that maths and music used to be considered as an integrated concept.
‘Today, we think in terms of math/science people or verbal/artistic people. There’s that division. In the past, maths, music, and reading held the liberal arts together,’ says Wayne Parker, senior researcher at John Hopkins’ Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth. (For an example, just look at the Ancient Greeks.)
Rather than focusing on music vs. maths, it may help to steer the conversation to the fact that, historically, these subjects were complementary. After all, music can be a jumping-off point for students to understand the world more broadly. We can ask them to explore the cultural context of the music they hear, or help them to understand concepts like wordplay and sound patterns. Let’s encourage students to not just consume music, but question and consider the deeper themes within for their own creative output.
But, at the end of the day, let’s not overthink it.
As Professors David Bailey (UC Davis) and Jonathan Borwein (Professor of Mathematics, U of Newcastle, Australia) put it, ‘while it is problematic to claim any kind of innate link between mathematical ability and musical ability, it is clear that the two disciplines have a deep commonality’ that can benefit students in many surprising ways.
Yes, it’s possible that the next Einstein may be lurking in your music class. But given the myriad benefits of music beyond the classroom, there are still many reasons and ways to justify investment in music learning: for its capacity to build good citizens of the future, for its technical skill, and most of all for personal enjoyment.
*STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
About the author
Jessica Vas is part of the Community & Outreach team at BandLab for Education, the free-to-use music production platform. Her role includes working with teachers across more than a dozen countries to help them get the most out of BandLab for Education.