How Journalism Can Misrepresent The Benefits Of Music Education

image Credit: ONE Smart Piano Classroom
Graham Strahle
| July 17, 2018

Headlines such as ‘Music lessons can improve your child’s grades’ pop up with such regularity that readers can be forgiven for becoming blasé about claims that are made about the benefits of music education. The problem perhaps lies in the way research is routinely reported by journalists.

The above headline comes in fact from a recent story in The Jakarta Post on research that was conducted in The Netherlands into how music lessons influence the executive functions of children’s brains. Published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, their paper concluded that long-term music education at the primary school level can have a positive influence “on cognitive abilities such as inhibition and planning”, and that the results of this research “support the claim that long-term music interventions improve academic achievement”.

The authors – two neuropsychologists and a music therapist – were careful to point out that there is no definitive proof so far that learning music raises a child’s academic grades. They cautioned that “more studies investigating executive sub-functions, on the relation between music education and academic achievement are necessary” before we really know the connection.

But that didn’t stop rash headlines from appearing. What happened in fact was that Science Daily came out with the first report on this Dutch research, in a story entitled ‘Music lessons improve children’s cognitive skills and academic performance’ – which is perhaps nearer the mark. The Jakarta Post appears to have picked up on this title but given it bigger journalistic impact.

The study itself in Frontiers in Neuroscience is a well-constructed, rigorous investigation. Music Australia reported on it in April. Artur C. Jaschke, Henkjan Honing and Erik J. A. Scherder monitored 147 randomly chosen children in Dutch primary schools over a period of two and a half years, giving them a series of neuropsychological tests at six monthly intervals. The children were divided into four randomised groups: two that received music intervention, one that received lessons in visual arts, and one control group.

The students who received music intervention were given classes in music theory and history, and participated in singing and improvising. Additionally, they “were encouraged to choose and play instruments” and were given one-to-two hour weekly instrumental lessons during regular school hours, although they were not permitted to take their instruments home. The tests administered were standard neuropsychological tests that scored the ability at planning, working memory, inhibition and verbal IQ.

So, on the one hand, there is a thirst to know more – especially among parents who want to help their children in every way they can. But clearly more needs to be known.

“Arguing in favor of far transfer from music lessons to academic achievement remains difficult”, observed these Dutch researchers.

Research is pointing to answers, if not providing final answers.

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