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Mathematics and Music – Is There Really a Connection?

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Is there really a connection between Mathematics and music? And, if there is – is it a relationship in both directions? Will a musician be good at Mathematics and a mathematician good at playing a musical instrument? And, what is the practical application of it? Would learning to play the bass guitar help my child understand Euclidean geometry or should he listen to Imagine Dragons while doing trigonometry? I did some research to find out more about the connection between Mathematics and music.

Pythagoras – Father of Harmonics

My path again crossed with Pythagoras and this time it was not to work on his well-known theorem: a2 + b2 = c2. I was surprised to find his name attached to this beautiful quote:

“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” – Pythagoras

Now most of you know that Pythagoras is credited with being the “Father of Mathematics”. But, how many of you know that he is also credited with being the “Father of Harmonics”? Pythagoras discovered the musical intervals. He also lectured people in the healing powers of sound and harmonic frequencies. Pythagoras not only applied the principles of harmonics to music, art, and architecture but also to more social arenas like raising a family, friendship and personal development.

Einstein played the piano (and the violin)

Pythagoras wasn’t the only mathematician that used music to shape his scientific ideas. Another great mathematician used to sit and play music when he was stuck on a mathematical problem. Einstein strengthened the communication between the two hemispheres of his brain and increased his brain power by playing the piano or violin (right brain) while thinking about a mathematical problem (left brain). He was even quoted as saying that if he was not a physicist, he would probably be a musician. 

“I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” – Einstein

Listening to music while doing Maths

Research done at a primary school in California introduced a music-based programme that uses rhythm to teach mathematical concepts. The curriculum, called “Academic Music”, incorporates music notation, clapping, drumming and chanting when introducing fractions to Grade 3 learners. 

At Hoover Elementary School in the San Francisco Bay Area the Academic Music programme showed concrete results. Half of the group of 67 learners participated in a six-week Academic Music curriculum while the other half of the group received the school’s normal mathematical teaching. The learners who received the music-based programme scored 50% higher on a fractions test that was taken at the end of the study, compared to the learners in the regular Maths class.

There were also significant gains for learners who struggle academically. When comparing the test scores of lower-performing students in both groups they found that those who were taught the experimental music curriculum scored 40% higher on the final fractions test compared to their lower-performing peers in the standard Maths class.

Playing a musical instrument

We have now seen that listening to music may improve cognitive and mathematical skills. However, performing music is where the real advantage lies. Learning to play a musical instrument improves mathematical skills because, at some level, all music is Mathematics. Music is about time signatures, beats per minute and formula-based progressions. Playing a musical instrument reinforces parts of the brain used when doing Mathematics. Research shows that children who play instruments can solve complicated mathematical problems better than their peers who do not play a musical instrument.

The bottom line is not detailed, but very clear: We should involve music in some form in our child’s academic life. This could be done by playing soft background music while your child is fighting fractions or by signing her up for music lessons so that she can learn how to play that saxophone herself!

Written by Anne-Marie Reed – Mathematics Education Analyst at FutureLearn

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