Music achievement and its relationship to maths and reading achievement. Does it exist?

Music is seen as powerful force in learning improvement and is recognised around the world, even former president of the United States Bill Clinton (quoted in Mark, 2002, p. 67) expressed that “learning improves in school environments where there are comprehensive music and arts programs. They increase the ability of young people to do math. They increase the ability of young people to read.”

Music and academic achievement have received a lot of attention over the years. There are good reasons for this. Research often shows positive links between music learning and academic results.  Furthermore, music research has substantiated these claims. Consistent links between music and other academic areas have been identified among school students (McDonal, 2015; dos Santos-Luiz, 2016; Cox & Stephens, 2006; Miksza, 2010).

Less often researched and understood is *music achievement* and academic achievement. Music achievement is different to learning music.  A large amount of research exists on music participation as its easy to define and operationalise. Music achievement is much harder to define and measure. However, there are several tests which can be used to measure musical achievement (Colwel, 1968, 1969). >Thus the research question is: defining the relationship between achievement in music to achievement in maths and reading.

Confounding variables

There are many confounding variables in a research questions such as this. One is: do music students outperform other students academically, or is it that music tends to attract high achieving students? (Fitzpatrick, 2006). 

Other variables to question are socio-economic status, teaching and teacher quality, and background issues related to education which need to be controlled for. Some of these relationships can be spurious, others can be valid and effect research results.  Ultimately, we need to understand and control for the effects of these extraneous influences to fully understand music achievement and its relation to achievement in maths and reading. A way to calculate this is to measure and then control for these confounding variables.

The research

A recent study by Bergee & Weingarten (2021) set about to answer these questions. Their research question was when controlling for background variables, is achievement in music related to achievement and math and reading of school students? Furthermore, the researchers went a few steps further in their research by measuring in a multilevel model. This means measuring the effects of music acievement at the individual, class, school and district level. By doing so, the researchers can measure which level the most variance in achievement scores occurs adding to further clarify music achievement it effects on maths and reading.

The research models

The researchers assessed music achievement, maths achievement and reading achievement of high school students through a number of surveys. The researchers devised two models to test the relationships: one to test the relationship of music achievement and maths achievement, and another to test the relationship of music achievement and reading achievement.

The research results

Their results found that almost all the variability of music achievement was situated at the individual student level.  What this is saying are that the connections between music achievement and achievement in maths and reading are mostly due to student aptitude and ability rather than the confounding variable effects of school, classroom (teacher), or district. In other words, extraneous background factors are not responsible for the relationships among music achievement and maths and reading achievement. 

These results suggest it may be due to general intelligence (g). Prior research on musical achievement has been associated with general intelligence (g), even when amount of musical training has been controlled for (Swaminaathan et al, 2017). This leads to a number of conclusions. Alternative suggestions were that the actual musical tests employed in this research involve auditory skills, which has been found to mediate music training and ability (Schelenberg & Weiss, 2013). 

The results also show that music achievement is differentially related to maths and reading achievement. There were number of music achievement tests used which assessed various aspects of music. One such test assessed major, minor mode discrimination, tonal centre, and music reading. The results for this test were more strongly related to both reading and math achievement.

Another music achievement test used consisting of cadences and phrases (longer musical examples) was not a strongly associated with reading and maths achievement. The differences between these two types of musical achievement tests maybe due to aspects of cognition and the way in which musical aspects are perceived. For example, at the micro-level—pitches, intervals, and metres— may share a cognitive basis with patterns of speech. More macro-level musical skills such as mode and tonal centre discrimination may share aspects of patterns in mathematical structures, therefore differences were found in results between the two musical achievement tests used.

Unexplained variance

Although some results were found, the two research models assessed had a large amount of unexplained variance. .72 for maths achievement and .64 for reading achievement, however, the effect size is greater than .2.  For research in the social sciences, such an effect level is not considered a poor result. Research in the social sciences does not provide precise outcomes, however, these results provide evidence of an effect at play.

It may be that some other moderators (confounding variables) were not accounted for. Furthermore, although the samples used in the study were essentially to be random, access to students to participate in the study often has a gatekeeper providing times and access. This may in some way bias results if the sample is not as randomised as originally conceived.


Music achievement manifests in a variety of ways such as achievement across a number of domains. There is some evidence of links between achievement in music and achievement in reading and maths, although this requires further investigation.

© iteachpiano 2021

Bergee, M. J., & Weingarten, K. M. (2021). Multilevel Models of the Relationship Between Music Achievement and Reading and Math Achievement. Journal of Research in Music Education, 68(4), 398–418.

Colwell, R. (1968). Music achievement tests. Follett Educational Corporation.

Colwell, R. (1969). Interpretive manual, MAT music achievement test 1 and 2. Follett Educational Corporation.

Cox, H. A., & Stephens, L. J. (2006). The effect of music participation on mathematical achievement and overall academic achievement of high school students. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 37(7), 757–763. https:// 

dos Santos-Luiz, C., Mónico, L. S. M., Almeida, L. S., & Coimbra, D. (2016). Exploring the long-term associations between adolescents’ music training and academic achievement. Musicae Scientiae, 20(4), 512–527. 

Fitzpatrick, K. R. (2006). The effect of instrumental music participation and socioeconomic status on Ohio fourth-, sixth-, and ninth-grade proficiency test performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(1), 73–84.

McDonel, J. S. (2015). Exploring learning connections between music and mathematics in early childhood. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 203, 45–62.

Miksza, P. (2010). Investigating relationships between participation in high school music ensembles and extra-musical outcomes: An analysis of the education longitudinal study of 2002 using a bioecological development model. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 186, 7–25.

O’Donnell, A. (2018, January 8). Language and literacy learning through music. Literacy Daily.

Schellenberg, E. G., & Weiss, M. (2013). Music and cognitive abilities. In D. Deutsch (Ed.), The psychology of music (3rd ed., pp. 499–550). Academic Press. B978-0-12-381460-9.00012-2 

Swaminathan, S., Schellenberg, E. G., & Khalil, S. (2017). Revisiting the association between music lessons and intelligence: Training effects or music aptitude? Intelligence, 62, 119– 124. 

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