Thursday, July 9, 2020
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Re-engaging the 'music helps math' debate

For the umpteenth time, it makes no difference whether studying music helps your schoolwork in math, studying math helps you perform music better, or the two are just correlated without any causal connection between them.

Yet, a journalism student at the University of Maryland, Naomi Eide, explored this question at great length in an article she wrote for Live Science.com.

“For the past 50 years, [Denny] Gulick has been a math professor at the University of Maryland, and he has found many correlations between math and classical music,” she writes.

“The connection is that—to my way of thinking, and I have thought about this for decades—there are patterns [in music], especially with Johann Sebastian Bach,” she quoted Mr Gulick as saying. “There are a lot of patterns, and mathematics has a lot of patterns. … In fact, mathematics is really about patterns.”

That was so beautiful a beginning. And then, she throws the article on the trash heap by asking, “Does music help math, or does math help music?”

Ms Eide: Nobody cares!

Music and math, just like music and executive function or music and abstract reasoning, have lots of correlations in the scientific literature—and Ms Eide lists several in her extensive exposition. But no one is ever going to be able to prove causation because we can’t conduct the kind of controlled experiments we would need on actual children.

Proving causation between music and math would mean removing all other variables from children’s lives or statistically controlling for all those other variables so we could get coefficients for just music and math ability. Well, that’s not going to work because (a) there are too many variables and (b) we can’t tell a girl not to play baseball or a boy not to play with dolls or vice versa or in any other way remove these variables from their lives.

Let’s just stop asking the question. If the point of this research is to say that music education is important, I have to tell you, it’s a dead-end argument. Physical activities, such as running, also increase scores on academic tests. One elementary school principal in Ohio told me a few years back that the smell of bubblegum has been shown to improve performance on standardized tests, explaining why she was passing out bubblegum on testing day in her school.

So, if all you’re interested in is improving a kid’s algebra scores, you would not only have to be a music proponent but also a physical education proponent and a supplier of bubblegum. There’s just as much evidence of causation for any of these, which is to say that there’s absolutely no evidence of causation.

Physical activity and bubblegum chewing aren’t the only variables in kids’ lives that correlate with math ability either. Family wealth also correlates with it. And dealing with poverty is a much more important issue than dealing with the loss of music programs in our schools, so communities and school districts alike will outshine anyone who makes the assertion that music education is important for improving the math scores for kids at a school.

In addition to the above, there’s also the notion that telling schools they need to have music programs in order to help kids learn math belittles the music and the math. Neither should be considered subservient to the other, but that’s exactly the message it sends to our communities and policy-makers when “scientists” or “journalists” investigate questions like, “Does music help math, or does math help music?”

Music shapes the way students understand themselves and the world around them, we reported. Math is the basis for science and careers in STEM disciplines.

Sure, music study correlates with, according to the National Association for Music Education, improved critical thinking and collaboration skills, better spatial reasoning ability, and higher levels of creativity. Kids who study music have higher attendance and graduation rates as well.

But here’s the thing: Kids who perform well in math also have higher attendance and graduation rates, and all those other things too. Rich kids have higher attendance and graduation rates than poor kids. We just have so many variables to explore that we’ll never be able to control them all, meaning that the jury will never come back with a verdict on Ms Eide’s question.

I personally think math is just as important, but not more important, than music. And music is just as important as math, but for different reasons, including that, for many, many kids we have talked to for articles on these pages, participating in music programs is the most important factor contributing to their enjoyment of school. Kids who participate in athletics have shared the same feelings with us, but those are different kids, and the point of a public education is to serve all kids.

Most people think of math as a “core” subject and music as—well, something that’s not a core subject. That could change next month, though, when Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In the current draft of the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, which could come up for a vote sometime after July 7 (but don’t hold your breath), Congress will tell schools to develop:

  • (K) programs and activities that offer a variety of well-rounded educational experience for students, such as those that:
    • (i) use music and the arts as a tool to promote constructive student engagement, problem solving, and conflict resolution; or
    • (ii) further students’ understanding of and knowledge in computer science from elementary school through secondary school;

“This is game-changing news,” NAfME Assistant Executive Director Chris Woodside said in a press release. “The benefits of listing the arts as core demonstrate the importance of recognizing our nation’s education priorities at the federal level. The elimination of core academic subjects from ESEA would jeopardize national efforts to ensure that all students, regardless of race or economic status, have access to high quality school music programs.”

And we agree with this clause in proposed federal legislation. Music helps to provide a “well-rounded education” for students. There’s a lot of benefit in that alone. Why do we spend so much energy on questions that are completely irrelevant?

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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