Music and mathematics: Modest support for the oft-claimed relationship

Vaughn, K. (2000). Music and mathematics: Modest support for the oft-claimed relationship. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34, 149-166.

Abstract:

The author conducted three meta-analyses to investigate the effects of music instruction/exposure on improvements in mathematics. The meta-analyses included 25 studies published between 1950 and 1999. The first meta-analysis examined correlational studies that investigated whether students who chose to study music had high math outcomes and found a modest positive correlation between the voluntary study of music and mathematical achievement. The second meta-analysis reviewed experimental studies that assessed if music instruction causes mathematical improvement and found music training was effective at improving mathematics performance. The third meta-analysis included experimental studies that tested whether performance on math tests improves when music is played in the background and found that there was only a very small positive effect of playing music in the background and mathematics performance.

Key Findings:

  • The first meta-analysis found a modest positive correlation between the voluntary study of music and mathematical achievement.
  • The second meta-analysis found that music training was effective at improving mathematics performance.
  • The third meta-analysis found that there was only a very small positive effect of playing music in the background and mathematics performance.

Significance of the Findings:

The meta-analyses provide a review of studies about music and mathematics conducted from 1950 to 1999. The meta-analyses provide one method to review and distill the results of music instruction or music exposure on mathematics performance from many studies. The positive results indicate that music instruction may help improve students’ mathematical skills. Music instruction may also be beneficial to students who generally struggle with mathematics.

Methodology:

A total of 25 studies were included in the three meta-analyses that were published from 1950 to 1990. Eight correlational studies examined whether students who chose to study music have high math outcomes. Five experimental studies assessed if music instruction causes mathematical improvement. Twelve experimental studies tested if performance on math tests improves when music is played in the background during test-taking. For each of the meta-analyses, the researcher calculated effect sizes, along with the associated Z level and the significance level associated with the Z.

Limitations of the Research:

Overall, there were very few studies included in each meta-analysis. Within each of the meta-analyses, there were variations in each of the studies. For example in the meta-analysis focusing on the correlational studies investigating whether students who choose to study music have high math outcomes, the participants in the studies had varied exposure to music training and ranged in education from elementary to college. Further, the study only included published studies which could greatly bias the findings.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Would a similar meta-analyses conducted with studies published since 1999 also show similar results? Would a meta-analysis that included unpublished studies show similar results?