Evaluating the Effects of Music Education Programming in Low-Income Communities: A Randomized Control Study

9/1/2017 – 8/31/2023


Principal Investigator: Jessica Sperling (Smokoski), Social Science Research Institute, Duke University

El Sistema-inspired music education programs employ a whole-child, community-based model that aims to positively alter the life trajectory of historically underserved youth through collective ensemble orchestral programming. Anecdotal evidence and hypothesized benefits suggest such programs facilitate cognitive and social development. However, there has been limited rigorous study of these programs.

Using a randomized control trial design, this study aimed to examine the effects of El Sistema-inspired music programming on children’s executive function (EF) and social emotional learning (SEL) skills after one academic year of program participation. First time program applicants (kindergarten and first grade, including a large representation of non-White and low-socioeconomic status (SES) participants), were enrolled in the study. Treatment students participated in the music program, while control participants were not assigned additional study-related activities (i.e. no waitlist or control task). Pre- and post-program assessments were administered at the beginning and end of the academic year (October and April, in an academic year). Assessments included computerized EF tasks for youth, which were administered in-person by a research team member meeting with a student, and classroom teacher- and parent-reported SEL.

Consistent with previous research showing lack of effect after one year of participation, we did not find an overall positive effect of the music programming on EF and SEL. However, when examining treatment effects by subgroups, we find that the music education program may provide benefits in select areas of interest (e.g. first graders show benefits in SEL, Hispanic students show benefits in EF). In addition, results highlight that there may be subgroups for whom the program may want to focus more attention on, as participation in the program for select subgroups was associated with lower scores in select EF and SEL constructs compared to control group peers (e.g. higher SES, Black or African American, and Hispanic scored lower in working memory; Kindergarteners scored lower in SEL)

This study contributes to ongoing research on the effects of music education programming for child development and executive function measurement for youth. Results can additionally inform the strategic development of similar initiatives aiming to foster youth development, including those with a focus on historically underserved youth through music programming.