FOCUS ON ISSUES & DECISION MAKING: Music Education Research 101, Part II

In This Article:

When music education advocates first sought “scientific” evidence to help protect programs, very little was known about how the brain works when making music. Today, the challenge of finding quality research is further complicated by the complexity of brain research, which covers a broad range of fields (e.g., cognitive, behavioral, developmental and neuropsychology). As a result, well-meaning advocates may grasp onto any research about music education, especially if it demonstrates a positive correlation between music and improvements in other academic areas. Inadvertently, many research results have been over-stated, over-generalized or over-promoted, causing skepticism about the motives of the advocates and relevance of the research.

How to Interpret Research Correctly: Ask the Right Questions

When media reports claim music instruction has positive effects on other types of intelligence, you may find that those evaluating the research haven’t paid close attention to the details of the study.

Problems occur when individuals confuse activities directly related to musical intelligence with those related to other types of intelligence. For example, keyboard training affects the part of the brain responsible for physical (kinesthetic) intelligence, not the part of the brain responsible for musical intelligence. While spatial and kinesthetic intelligence are both necessary to perform music well, they are very different from activities directly related to musical intelligence such as singing melodies, composing and so on.

As you select research, ask the following questions:

1. Does this study investigate a musical task or a music-related task, such as keyboard training (more closely related to spatial intelligence)?  In one study, keyboard training improved students’ abilities in mathematic reasoning; however, those students who received singing instruction (a musical task) showed no improvement in mathematical reasoning.

2. Does this study relate to activities offered in your district’s classrooms? If you cite a study focused on a task that your students don’t do, you may be asked to add that activity to your curriculum and sacrifice other more important items.

3. What population was studied? If researchers studied a small group of preschool students, you cannot necessarily draw comparisons to a high school classroom.

4. What was the size of the group studied? This is one of the greatest problems in selecting research. Very often, group size is extremely small, meaning research results may not be valid and generalizable. Look closely at what the report says about the validity of the study.

You can see why it’s important to look closely at the research to determine what findings researchers are reporting, and then utilize those findings on their own merits.

A Strong Enough Case for Music Education?

When making statements about connections between academic achievement and music, consider other possibilities for success related to music study perhaps not included in the research reports. For example:

• Are students who take music already better students?
• Do they participate in music because they like having a diverse set of experiences?
• Do students who stay longer in music possess better personal skills that make them better students?
• Does music–making make the difference or is it participation in group activities, personal accountability or parental support?

Can you see how we actually weaken our case for music education when we seek only to justify music for its non-musical and/or ancillary benefits?

Say a principal develops an elementary school string program expecting it to help improve standardized reading test scores. When scores don’t improve, his support for the music program may diminish, despite strong enrollment, good performance results and positive community engagement. He may even say music education is taking kids out of reading classes and lowering reading test scores. Bottom line? He’s worried his school will be penalized if reading scores do not improve dramatically.

We Can Make Our Case…But We Have to Work Harder At It

Nearly 30 years ago, Howard Gardner, from Harvard University, claimed music is a unique intelligence and cognitive process. Rather than spending so much energy arguing that music helps other academic subjects, I believe we should devote more time to demonstrating that music is a unique way of experiencing the world, a unique aspect of the human existence and a unique mode of self-expression.

Further, understanding that music is a distinct cognitive process, we should focus on continuing to improve the musical experience for our students––an experience that is comprehensive and should include performing, improvising and composing/arranging. If our programs provide an outstanding musical experience that is broad-based, relevant and inclusive, we become proactive in our advocacy, rather than reactive. A successful music program serving large numbers of students is the best defense possible.

Let the following ideas guide your development of research-based advocacy arguments:

1. Explore resources and websites of affiliate organizations and other professional associations. Be sure your sources are reliable, use them wisely and beware of hype that often accompanies new research findings.
2. Do not overstate, misinterpret or generalize results to create desirable advocacy messages. Correlative research is fine to use, but be cautious about implying causal links.
3. Use research demonstrating that music is a unique form of intelligence. (See Howard Gardner.)
4. Use research demonstrating that musical intelligence is crucial to success in global society. (See Eric Jensen and NAfME's publication, National Standards for Arts Education.)
5. Use research supporting the view that all people have some aptitude in music. By not offering strong music education programs, we are not educating the whole person and we are neglecting individuals who demonstrate specific giftedness. (See Sandra Trehub and Edwin Gordon.)
6. Use research demonstrating the unique periods of cognitive and emotional development related to music. (See Sandra Trehub and Mary Hager and Steven Pinker).
7. Use research focusing on the biological basis of music education, especially emotional intelligence, a tool considered critical by many business leaders.
8. Contact your local university’s music education department. If faculty members are involved in music education research or teaching classes on music education psychology, they may have the most current information.

Conclusion: Reclaiming Advocacy

Research is a useful tool, but it should not be the centerpiece of our advocacy efforts. When using research, distinguish between music’s intrinsic and extra-musical benefits. Both are important, but we have been overly focused on the second category.

Effective advocates proactively use research to develop and enhance music programs, to argue for increased staffing and resources, improve teaching and to implement new methods and necessary curricular change. Used properly, quality research can help us to attain our broader goals of reaching a larger number of students, reducing dropout rates, and providing comprehensive and relevant musical experience for our students.

Stephen Benham is an Associate Professor of Music Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received his B.S. from the University of Minnesota, his M.M. from the University of Michigan, and his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester (Eastman School of Music). His prior experience includes thirteen years as a public school string teacher in Oregon, Michigan, and New York.

For additional reading:

Eckart Altenmüller and Wilfried Gruhn: Music, the Brain, and Music Learning (GIML Monograph Number 2: GIA Music).

Howard Gardner: Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (Basic Books, 2000); The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests, the K-12 Education that Every Child Deserves (Penguin, 2000), and Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons (Perseus Books Group, 2006).

Edwin E. Gordon: Preparatory Audiation, Audition, and Music Learning Theory (Chicago, IL: GIA Music, 2001).

Eric Jensen: Music with the Brain in Mind (Brain Store, Inc., 2000) and Teaching with the Brain in Mind (Association for Curriculum and Supervision Development, 2001).

No Subject Left Behind: A Guide to Arts Education Opportunities in the 2001 NCLB Act, available online from multiple sources.

Music Educators National Conference, National Standards for Arts Education (Reston, VA: MENC, 1994).

Steven Pinker: How the Mind Works (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).

Bennett Reimer: The Danger of Music Education Advocacy (International Journal of Music education, 23/2, 139–142, 2005).

Sandra Trehub: Music on the Mind (Newsweek, July 24, 2000, page 50ff).

Sandra Trehub and Mary Hager: Your Child’s Brain (Newsweek, 127/8, pp. 54–61, February 19, 1996).