University of Kansas music education professor and researcher Martin Bergee had long doubted the popular narrative that music education had any actual correlation with students’ performance in other subjects, such as math and reading.
Among most education groups, the line of thinking was that if students can develop cognitive thinking skills by learning about, listening to and playing music, those cognitive skills transfer to other kinds of thinking skills, as if parts of the brain could be trained like muscles.
Bergee wasn’t buying that theory, so when he set out to conduct a study of nearly 1,000 middle-school-aged students and their test scores, he was sure the data would find no correlation between the skills, and that the data would show that other factors — such as students’ prior education or socioeconomic backgrounds — are the actual reasons for better school performance stemming from music classes.
He was wrong. In fact, he found just the opposite — even stronger evidence for the correlation between music, math and reading outcomes.
"I threw everything I had access to at it, but the relationship maintained and in fact was very strong," Bergee said.
But apart from Bergee’s surprise from the results, the study bodes well for education in general, he said.
"If you look at this a certain way, this is very good news for music, but for all academics," he said. "One explanation could be that I just left something out, but what I concluded, and I think there’s justification for this, is that while we have domain-specific learning centers in our mind, we also have domain-general learning centers in our minds."
Domain-based learning refers to the idea that the brain either learns information specifically and in only one context, or the idea that learning takes place broadly and any new information builds on the brain’s capabilities more broadly as one structure, rather than individual parts of the brain.
Bergee’s research supports the latter idea — that music training can improve all kinds of cognitive thinking. The reason different academic subjects like math, music and reading might see such a correlation between learning outcomes is that learning in these specific areas trains the brain holistically, he said.
"In other words, learning is a completely interrelated phenomenon," he said. "It’s hard to separate, it’s not modular. Take music out of the learning environment and everything suffers. The whole learning process suffers. The same thing would happen if you took any academic area of the school environment."
The research has broad implications for teachers and decision makers in education, he said. Classes like music aren’t modular, and school boards and administrators should consider them as equally vital parts of the classroom experience.
Further research could look into whether that relationship between music training and other subjects holds true for other age groups, including adults. Bergee said he hesitates to extrapolate data from this specific study to other groups, but he hoped that would be the case.
"The main point I’m making is that these subject areas are strongly interrelated at a fundamental level," he said. "Maybe more so than people might think or realize."