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Research Roundup: Music at the centre of the curriculum

6th March 2024

Over the next few months, I’ll be pulling together music education research in exploring the relationships between music and broader curriculum delivery. Is music an educational WD-40? What does it unlock or facilitate? And what does all this mean for music learning itself?

There have been recent overviews to these broader level questions. Recently, Using Music to Enhance Student Learning: A Practical Guide for Elementary Classroom Teachers by Fallin, Gregory Tower and Tannert, (Routledge, 2021) explores how music can ‘enhance learning in all subjects’. But to kick things off, I’m starting with research that considers music and maths.

Music and Maths: Does it add up?

If you’ve been through the experience of your children learning their times tables with the help of Taylor Swift covers (it’s a real thing) you’ll know that music and maths is already a well established link. Programs like Numberblocks use songs to deliver foundational ideas to pre-school age children (see Thinking and Learning About Mathematics in the Early Years for more on this).

The more formal use of music to deliver maths has been called integrated arts teaching. It’s a well explored research topic, though it does requires some caution around the value we are placing on music as a subject in its own right. So, let’s jump in.

First up, is the question of how integrating music into maths lessons could improve pupil attainment. Dr. Ayça Akın’s recent meta study suggests yes, that integrated lessons can boost achievement. In 2005, University of Cambridge’s project Count the Beat set out to answer the question ‘does music-making have the potential to help your pupils understand mathematical concepts such as fractions, ratios and probability?’ The project highlighted ‘two ways in which music-making can aid your pupils’ understanding: firstly, it can provide a fun and imaginative way of familiarising children with maths topics and vocabulary; secondly, there are direct parallels between the skills needed to succeed in the maths and music classrooms that can be drawn out to reinforce each other.’

Elsewhere, there are overviews of the relationship between the two subjects, this multi-authored paper explored practices in Catalonia and in England. (Viladot, Hilton, Casals, Saunders, Carrillo, Henley, González-Martín, Prat & Welch, 2018)

Exploring the relationship between ‘emergent rhythm development and emergent numeracy development’ has also been a focus of early years studies (Jennifer S. Mcdonel, 2015). Movement and music as a way to explore maths has also been addressed (Bakar and Samsudin, 2021).

More recently, Sylwia Holmes’s 2018 Doctoral thesis explored the impact of music-informed singing lessons over a two year project with 4-8 year olds, ‘The results of the current study cast light on how musical, spatial-temporal, and mathematical skills are intertwined and explored how the music programme might be useful in learning in specific areas of mathematics whilst feeding into the overall mathematical development.’ Practicing maths skills using music has been the focus of a range of studies (e.g. game based learning for STEAM in Mexico in Roa, Roa & Chounta, 2020).

Other projects have looked at how music and maths can be developed, in 2019 Mead Academy Trust and Wiltshire Music Connect explored ‘how the teaching of music and maths can be combined in the primary school classroom, and the impact that this has on pupil outcomes in both subjects.’

There is less work around secondary education and music, though this 2020 piece considers functions and music in relation to graphing (Nagy, Malone, 2020). Using music to teach more complicated mathematical ideas has been explored here in relation to song lyrics and the number e (yes I did have to read a wikipedia page to find out why E is a number).

Compiled by Dr Sarah K. Whitfield – Research Lead for Music Mark

Research Roundup in a yellow text, with the music mark logo. A decorative digital sound equalizer pattern is on the bottom. There is a dark red background.