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Music Achievement's Academic Perks Hold Up Under Scrutiny

A new study identifies a link between music achievement and math/reading scores.

Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

New research (Bergee & Weingarten, 2020) published in the Journal of Research in Music Education does a deep dive into the possible link between music achievement and reading/math achievement in 4th-8th grade students in the United States. Over a thousand (N = 1,081) kids from seven Midwestern school districts participated in this study.

Over the past decade, numerous studies (here, here, here, here, here) have found that school-age children who learn to play a musical instrument tend to perform better academically than their non-musician peers.

Despite mountains of empirical evidence, healthy skepticism causes some to speculate that just because there may be a correlation between music participation and higher test scores, this association doesn't necessarily mean that musical training causes academic performance to improve.

Prior to conducting his latest research into any potential links between music achievement and higher academic test scores, Martin Bergee, professor of music education and music therapy at the University of Kansas, was skeptical about the overhyped interpretations of previous research in his field.

According to Bergee, the goal of his recent study wasn't "to show that learning music will necessarily improve a child's math or reading scores" but rather "to test the extent to which students' music achievement scores were related to their reading and math achievement scores."

"There has been this notion for a long time, that not only are [music achievement and math/reading achievement] related, but there's a cause-and-effect relationship," Bergee explained in a news release. "That's always been suspect with me. I've always believed that the relationship is correlational and not causational."

Because correlation does not imply causation, Bergee hypothesized that if he created a robust study that controlled for multiple confounding variables (e.g., socioeconomic factors, parents' degree of education, a school's zip code, free/reduced-priced school lunches), then his "multilevel mixed modeling" research would reveal that the correlation between music achievement and academic achievement had been overblown.

"I set out to demonstrate that there are probably a number of background variables that are influencing achievement in any academic area," Bergee notes. "My intention was to show that the relationships are probably spurious, meaning that background influences are the main drivers of the relationships, and once those outside influences, like demographics, etc., are controlled for, the relationship essentially disappears. But hang on. Much to my surprise, not only did they not disappear, but the relationships are really strong."

For this study, Bergee and co-author Kevin Weingarten had each participant complete representative portions of two different Music Achievement Tests (MAT-1 and MAT-2) and, after accounting for confounding variables, compared these scores to their math/reading scores. As the authors explain: "With the aforementioned variables controlled for, both MAT-1 and MAT-2 (controlling for one another as well) demonstrated a strong relationship with reading and math achievement (ps < .0001)."

Instead of disproving the link between music achievement and academic achievement, Bergee's study (2020) reaffirmed statistically significant associations between musical achievement scores and academic achievement in mathematics and reading.

"Based on the findings, the point we tried to make is that there might be, and probably are, general learning processes that underlie all academic achievement, no matter what the area is," Bergee said in the news release. "Music achievement, math achievement, reading achievement—there are probably more generalized processes of the mind that are brought to bear on any of those areas."

"If you want a young person's—or any person's—mind to develop, then you need to develop it in all ways it can be developed," Bergee concludes. "You can't sacrifice some modes of learning to other modes of learning for whatever reason, be it financial or societal."


Martin J. Bergee and Kevin M. Weingarten. "Multilevel Models of the Relationship Between Music Achievement and Reading and Math Achievement." Journal of Research in Music Education (First published online: August 05, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/0022429420941432