Academic Music: Music instruction to engage third grade students in learning basic fraction concepts

Courey, S., Balogh, E., Siker, J., Paik, J. (2012). Academic Music: Music instruction to engage third grade students in learning basic fraction concepts. Educational Studies in Mathematics


This study examines the effects of an academic music intervention on conceptual understanding of music notation, fraction symbols, fraction size, and equivalency of third-graders from a multicultural, mixed socio-economic public school setting. Students (N = 67) were assigned by class to their general education math program (the comparison group) or Academic Music instruction (the experimental group) two times per week, 45 minutes per session, for six weeks. Academic Music students used their conceptual understanding of music and fraction concepts to inform their solutions to fraction computation problems.

Key Findings:

Statistical tests revealed significant differences between experimental and comparison students’ understanding of musical and fraction concepts, and fraction computation at post-test with large effect sizes. Students who came to instruction with less fraction knowledge responded well to instruction and produced posttest scores similar to their higher achieving peers.

Significance of the Findings:

This multimodal approach to early fraction instruction could encourage a deeper understanding of fraction reasoning because students are introduced to fraction concepts in fun and engaging ways. Schools are under pressure to demonstrate adequate academic progress so administrators often reduce or eliminate music to devote more time to traditional reading and math instruction.

In the United States, 20 percent of school districts surveyed had greatly reduced instructional time for music. In California, participation in general basic music classes between 1999 and 2004 declined by 85.8 percent, representing a loss of 264,821 students. If fraction instruction could be combined with genuine music instruction to teach math, educators could keep music in the classroom while addressing a central mathematical concept.


Third-grade students (N = 67) were assigned by class to Academic Music instruction (the experimental group) or their general education math program (the comparison group) two times per week for 45-minute sessions over the course of six weeks. The Academic Music intervention related math to music by showing the relationship of musical rhythms to different sizes of fractions. Students learned to read musical notes and perform basic rhythmic patterns through clapping and drumming. They worked toward adding musical notes together to produce a real number (fraction), and created addition/subtraction problems with musical notes

The study utilized a quasi-experimental comparison group pre-test/post-test design. The researchers determined no significant differences in student demographics across experimental and comparison groups. Independent sample compared mean scores of experimental and comparison groups on the California Standards Test and the California English Language Development Test to establish no significant differences between the mean scores of the two groups on academic achievement and English language proficiency prior to the start of the study. The researchers examined differences between comparison and experimental students’ post-test performance on the Music Test and The Fraction Concepts test. Planned analyses of covariance (ANCOVA) on the mean scores of each test to control for preintervention knowledge of music concepts and fraction concepts was unable to be conducted. Due to the nature of the data, the researchers examined scatter plots and best fit lines to interpret the interaction.

To examine differences between the experimental groups’ versus the comparison group’s performance on post-tests, the researchers performed independent sample tests. They also performed an independent sample test to examine differences between the groups on the mean scores of the final fraction worksheet. Finally, the researchers performed an error analysis on the final fraction worksheet to examine differences in patterns of errors across groups.

Limitations of the Research:

There were some limitations to the study which have been identified below:

1) The researchers had only two experimental and two comparison classrooms from the same school for a total of 67 participants.

2) Students were not randomly assigned to comparison and experimental group, but assigned by classroom to conditions by the school principal.

3) Approximately half of the students in this study were English Language Learners, so these results can only be generalized to similar populations of students. Because of the small sample size, lack of randomization, and specific sample characteristics, results may not occur with a different sample.

4) While both teachers in the Academic Music group thought they could implement Academic Music in their classrooms on their own, the researchers could not be certain that they would obtain similar results if they did not have some music training. For the study, Academic Music instruction was delivered by a math educator and musician on the research team who co-developed the program.

5)Though they include specific instructions in their lesson plans and worksheets, and the basis of the music component is rhythm, it is nonetheless important that the sound of the measures in 4/4 time is music and not just four counts of sound.

Questions to Guide New Research:

The researchers plan for future studies to include creating an Academic Music manual (complete with a CD or DVD with music examples, lesson plans and instructions for teachers to use in their own classrooms) and examining whether teachers can administer Academic Music to their students with integrity and fidelity to achieve similar results.