Music & Language Skills: What’s the Connection?

    Like any other state, Texas education standards require that students reach certain levels of proficiency in core subjects each year. While all subjects taught in schools are important for creating a well-rounded and comprehensive learning environment, most would agree that subjects like mathematics and language skills are of primary concern.

    For many parents, teachers, and students, there is growing concern over the reduction or elimination of music education programs in public schools. And according to a recent study by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), that concern could be well-founded. The study found that musical study (which was based on piano lessons) has a distinct and positive effect on language skills.

    Music & Language Skills

    The MIT study, conducted in Beijing, found a correlation between piano lessons and kindergarteners’ capacity for distinguishing varying pitches. This ability translates into an improved capacity for recognizing the differences in spoken words. Robert Desimone, who authored the study and directs MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, says, “The children didn’t differ in the more broad cognitive measures, but they did show some improvements in word discrimination, particularly for consonants. The piano group showed the best improvement there.”

    In the study, 74 students of kindergarten age were divided into three groups at random. One group received six months of piano training, three times a week for 45 minutes. Another group underwent extra reading lessons, also three times a week for 45 minutes. The third group received no intervention at all.

    After six months, the group receiving piano lessons showed some distinct advantages over the other students in their capacity for distinguishing among words, along with a better ability to identify the tone of speech and of course, musical pitch. By comparison, it appears that certain facets of language development may be improved more by musical instruction than by extra reading lessons. The school that underwent the study continues to offer piano lessons to its students, and researchers look forward to future findings about how musical training can make a difference in early education.

    What About Texas Education Standards?

    According to the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA), “Texas legislators have consistently supported the opportunity for all students to study the fine arts. In recent years, they underscored that by establishing requirements at every level for students to experience high-quality fine arts education.” And as defined by the Texas State Board of Education, the fine arts include art, dance, theatre, and music. According to the TMEA (citing an article in the Washington Post), students who are exposed to the fine arts go well beyond the material actually presented, translating into skills such as:

    1. Creativity
    2. Confidence
    3. Problem-solving
    4. Perseverance
    5. Focus
    6. Nonverbal communication
    7. Receiving constructive feedback
    8. Collaboration
    9. Dedication
    10. Accountability

    In Texas, schools are actually required to offer standards-based education in the fine arts for grades K-12. These standards are part of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and have been established by grade level, with music teachers required to cover certain subjects in the classroom.

    What does music education specifically do for students? College Board, administrators of college entrance exams, has found that students who learn music throughout the high school years consistently get better scores on the SAT than those who don’t. Between 2011 and 2015, for example, students who had studied music and the arts for all four years of high school scored an average of 10-12% higher on the SAT than those who spent half a year or less in fine arts study.

    Texas Is on the Right Track

    If these studies are any indication, as long as Texas continues to offer–and require–education in music and the arts in public schools, we can expect to see consistency in how those students perform. By combining these efforts with other initiatives such as Pathways, and the implementation of learning management systems (LMS) like Canvas, Texas continues to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to education.