Middle School Music Lessons Enhance Algebra Skills

A look at Maryland students’ achievement levels finds a correlation between music instruction in grades six to eight and success at algebra.
Algebra, according to the Great Schools website, “is frequently called the gatekeeper subject.” It provides a solid foundation for later learning by teaching abstract reasoning skills. What’s more, its lessons apply to an increasing number of jobs in our technologically sophisticated society.
So how can you increase the chances your son or daughter will excel at algebra? A new study provides a surprising answer: Have them learn a musical instrument.
Researcher Barbara Helmrich of Baltimore’s College of Notre Dame examined a sample of 6,026 ninth-graders enrolled in six Maryland school districts. All had completed an introductory algebra course in either eighth or ninth grade and taken the HSA, a test that assesses how well they learned the subject.
Helmrich divided the students into three groups: Those who had received formal instruction on a musical instrument during the sixth, seventh and eighth grades; those who received choral instruction during those same years; and those who received no formal musical training.
She found the students who studied music significantly outperformed their peers. “Formal instrumental instruction impacted algebra scores the most,” she reports. “Choral instruction also affected scores, but to a lesser extent.”
This achievement gap was particularly pronounced among black students.
“For African Americans, the means of all three groups represented failing scores on the fifth-grade MSA,” she said, referring to a standard assessment of math knowledge and ability. “However, after the middle-school years, the means of both the instrumental and vocal groups represented passing HSA scores, whereas the mean of the group receiving neither instruction did not.”

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