A meta-analysis on the effects of music as reinforcement for education/therapy objectives

Standley, J.M. (1996). A meta-analysis on the effects of music as reinforcement for education/therapy objectives. Journal of Research in Music Education, 44(2), 105-133.


The purpose of the study meta-analysis was to examine the effectiveness of music as a reward (or removal of music as a punishment) in education and therapy settings. Music initiation, participation, or interruption as a reward/punishment for behavior change is an established education/therapy technique. This study used meta-analytical techniques to evaluate 208 variables/outcomes derived from 98 studies meeting the inclusion criteria. Findings show that music can serve as a strong motivator for behavioral improvements, and that the effect of music as a reward was diminished when other rewards (e.g., food, verbal approvals, visual stimuli) were offered.

Key Findings:

Music is highly effective as a motivator for either increasing desirable behavior or decreasing undesirable behavior. Music is more effective than other non-music stimuli or continuous music, and pairing music with other positive reinforcements (e.g., food, verbal approval) decreases its effectiveness. In this study, music-based rewards (e.g., getting guitar lessons for positive behavior) were more effective in physical rehabilitation and with developmental behaviors than medical or educational behaviors. Additionally, adults and infants responded best to music as a reward with the effects declining from childhood through the primary- and secondary-school years.

Significance of the Findings:

This meta-analysis shows the numerous positive effects of using music for positive reinforcement. Findings may be of particular significance to educators, as the most frequent uses of music as a reward have occurred in the field of education. In regular classrooms, music as subject matter or as pleasurable listening has reinforced other academic achievement, particularly math and reading skills. In special education settings, music has been used to decrease disruptive behavior and increase positive social behaviors such as following directions. The findings are also important to the fields of music education, as well as psychotherapy, as it looks to enhance effective techniques for creating and sustaining behavior change.


The meta-analysis involved three basic steps: (1) a complete literature search for all possible studies, both published and unpublished, in the defined population (studies fitting the specified inclusion criteria); (2) the relevant characteristics and results of the studies were identified and categorized; and (3) the data (dependent variables or outcomes) were converted to comparable effect size measures. A total of 98 studies were included in the meta-analysis.

Limitations of the Research:

The basic limitations of this research are those generally associated with the use of meta-analytic techniques – it combines data from different studies conducted under varying circumstances and it perpetuates an inherent bias due to an overrepresentation of published articles.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Why does the effectiveness of music as a positive reinforcement decline through the primary and secondary grades?