Learning to play a musical instrument relies on understanding concepts, such as fractions and ratios, that are important for mathematical achievement. But the precise relation between music and math—whether musical training promotes mathematical ability, or mathematical skill influences musical ability, or whether these skills simply develop in parallel—remains unclear.

Previous research has linked instrumental musical training to mathematical achievement, but this link is highly debated. For example, students who are musically trained have been observed to have higher mathematics grades and standardized test scores, compared with students who have not studied music. Yet not all studies have found an association between these two sets of skills. Furthermore, research has yet to determine whether the proposed link can be explained by other confounding factors, such as socioeconomic background (for example, if you grow up in a household with good financial resources, you are more likely to be able to afford music lessons, attend a good school, and so on), motivation, educational setting or overall parental involvement. To identify whether superior math abilities are a direct result of musical training, we need longitudinal studies that measure mathematical skill before and after such training and that control for these variables.

It is also possible that other cognitive factors contribute to an individual’s success in music and mathematics. In fact, research has suggested that the link may be driven by high-level cognitive-processing skills that are necessary for both subjects, such as executive functions, which allow individuals to adjust to changing task demands. Executive functions are known to be a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more so than general intelligence. Playing a musical instrument recruits these functions through, for example, constantly adjusting your motor movements to changing tempos and key signatures. To date, a few studies have suggested a link between musical training and executive-functioning skills. But longitudinal studies are also needed to establish whether this is a causal link or whether these skills develop side by side.

Until then, we should just simply enjoy studying math or music if it positively enriches our lives.

Editors’ Note (5/8/17): This article has been updated since its publication because of errors in the editing process.

Question submitted via e-mail

Do you have a question about the brain you would like an expert to answer? Send it to Editors@sciam.com