Sunday, June 28, 2015

The "Good for Other Things" argument: The (Slim) Case for Music

Stephen Krashen

Peter Greene (2015) argues that "we should not defend music because it's good for other things…." We should defend it because music "is awesome in ways that no other field is awesome. Defend it because it is music, and that’s all the reason it needs."

I agree completely.

My point in this note is that the "good for other things" argument doesn't even hold up very well.

Even though the public appears to be eager to believe that music helps academic achievement, the evidence is slim.

On Feb 2, 2009, Science Daily reported on "A new study [that]… reveals that music participation, defined as music lessons taken in or out of school and parents attending concerts with their children, has a positive effect on reading and mathematic achievement in early childhood and adolescence."

A look at the original paper (Southgate and Roscigno, 2009) shows otherwise:

  1. Music lessons outside of school had no impact on math scores, and were negatively correlated with elementary school reading. It had a small positive effect on adolescents' reading scores.
  2. Music courses taken between grades 8 and 10 had a small positive effect on adolescents test scores.
  3. Music participation in school had only a modest effect on both reading and math for children, a much weaker effect for adolescents in reading and an insignificant for adolescents in reading.
  4. Parents attending concerts had no effect on reading at all, no effect on adolescent math scores and a weak positive effect on children's reading achievement. (It was not clear if this variable meant parents attending concerts with or without their children, or concerts in which children are performing.)

The size of the effect was nowhere near as strong as the effect of access to books.  Adolescents who were active in music both inside and outside of school were predicted to score 1.32 points higher in reading (total possible score = 57), Those doing music only in-school were predicted to score .7 points higher. In contrast, having more than 50 books in the home, and higher socioeconomic status predicted a score of nearly seven points higher (6.97). There was no investigation of the effects of access to books in school.

Data from Sullivan and Brown (2014) also supports the conclusion that the impact of music is weak.  The impact of playing a musical instrument on vocabulary knowledge at age 42 was significant, adding about 5% to vocabulary scores. But reading "high-brow" fiction was five times as strong, and reading middle-brow fiction was three and a half times as strong, as was reading nonfiction, controlling for SES and vocabulary size when younger.

Why are we so eager to look for other causes of reading achievement (e.g. chess, Latin, music) other than the most obvious?

Greene, P. 2015.  Stop "defending" music education.
Krashen, S. 2009. Anything but Reading. Knowledge Quest 37 (5): 18-25.
Southgate, D. and Roscigno, V. (2009) The Impact of Music on Childhood and Adolescent Achievement, Social Science Quarterly 90 (1): 4-21.
Sullivan, A. & Brown, M. 2014. Vocabulary from Adolescence to Middle Age. Centre for Longitudinal Studies, University of London

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