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Struggling in Algebra? Take Up the Tuba (or Sax, or Flute...)

If polynomials and vectors have your middle schoolers racking their brains, they could do worse than take a break and practice a little on their trumpet, saxophone, or even a tuba. It might actually help, according to new research.

A study just out suggests that music instruction for middle school students enhances their academic achievement in algebra.

Published in the July issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research, the study of some 6,000 Maryland students found that, on average, those enrolled in formal instrumental or choral music instruction during middle school outperformed those who didn't receive any such instruction. (Studying an instrument was correlated with higher gains than chorus.)

The author suggests that the key factor may well be the type of brain development happening during the middle school years.

To be clear, this was not a random-assignment study. The researcher, Barbara H. Helmrich, an adjunct professor at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, relied on test data and related information on students in six school districts across Maryland who opted to get music instruction compared with those who did not.

"Due to the nature of educational choice in music, a true experimental situation was not feasible," Helmrich writes.

That said, she did try to control for certain factors, such as students' prior math achievement and their race (African-American and white).

Factoring in prior achievement did reduce the measured benefit, but it was still significant, Helmrich says. The study finds that African-American students appear to receive a greater degree of academic benefit in algebra than white students from studying music. Furthermore, she says that "music instruction exerts a greater influence on students who are not accelerated," though she cautions that "one does not expect that formal music instruction alone can completely compensate for little mathematical ability."

She writes: "The extent of [the] connection between music and algebra achievement most likely lies in a combination of factors."

In an e-mail to me, she further discussed the study: "I suggested that the middle school years might offer a window of opportunity for formal music instruction to impact (in this case algebra) achievement because of what is occurring in the brain at that time. New synapses are being formed in cortical areas that both music and mathematics access."

She added: "I suggested that learning and practicing music strengthens those connections. Those same strengthened synapses would then be utilized when performing algebra. Although I believe the results support my theory, I also discuss other possible explanations for my results."

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