Music Doesn’t Make Kids Better at Math & Science

There’s a widely held belief that kids who play a musical instrument do better in other areas of study than children who do not study music. I don’t want to challenge this correlation as there is plenty of research showing it to be true. What I will challenge is the causation.

I would argue that it is not merely the act of successfully making music that enables students. There are many musicians with a natural ability to create beautiful sounds and yet struggle to make sense of math equations or conduct adequate science experiments. The reason being that they haven’t learned to make mistakes and correct them.

The majority of musicians make mistakes. The first time they play a piece of music is not the best performance; neither is the second, third, or even tenth time. Perfection, truly, is not the goal. Through practice, mindful practice, musicians will refine their product. Most students focus on playing the right notes first- for newer students this might be several attempts of playing through, stopping midway, restarting, taking a segment in the middle or end, just to ensure they have the right notes. Once they have some confidence about the right notes, the focus of refinement might be rhythm and tempo of the piece; rhythm is a more difficult concept than pitch because pitch is defined and finite but rhythm is a divided temporal experience relative to larger piece of time. Finally, a musician can focus on dynamics and think about why the dynamics are marked in such a way- is there a balance or an emotion we’re trying to elicit?

After all that work of refining, the next time the musician plays the same piece of music it will be different. The dedication and discipline which goes into learning each piece of music contains hundreds of mistakes. Someone who studies music makes those mistakes confidently and refines for the next attempt. Then there is a transfer of that knowledge and how it can be applied to another piece of music. They don’t give up because they aren’t getting it right.

screenshot-2016-11-30-at-12-01-28-pm

Once a student has this type of discipline in their music study they often transfer that dedication and discipline to other areas of study. When they don’t get their maths right, they go back and refine, try something slightly different and confidently make some more mistakes until they are consistently getting it right, confidently. When the harder maths become  challenge they at least confidently have a part of it as a base to build from.

When science experiments aren’t working, a music student is less likely to quit and wait for someone else to get it done for them. They will analyze, make some changes, try again, and refine.

I have no care on whether or not my children become professional musicians or concert artists, but they will practice piano every day. Even if only for a few minutes. Call it character building, commitment, or discipline. You could even call it Grit – something I believe is more important than natural talent and something which can be taught.