Sorting out Math and Music, Smarter or Not?


Math was always easy for me and I liked it well enough. Honestly, I didn’t understand the difficulty students had with it that I understand now. I decided not to pursue a math related career because I didn’t think I had the ability to be creative with it. Yes, that was more than a few years ago. In part, the reality was then, it wasn’t a “girl” thing and no one ever talked to me about the creative possibilities using mathematics. In that lies part of the reason I am so insistent on fostering these skills, especially in girls. Yes, I had classmates (girls) that excelled and had math related careers. I didn’t.

Throughout my time as a student and a professional in the music world, I always loved making the connections between math and music. In graduate school, I attributed mathematical patterns and equations to the music of Alban Berg(1885-1935). Study of Bach’s music reveals considerable use of mathematics and left brain function. He used Fibonacci number or sequence in his music.  In Fibonacci sequence, the first two numbers are 0 and 1, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. The sequence is 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55. . . . It is used to describe the leaves of a pineapple or an artichoke. (Wikipedia, 2012).  Fractions correlate to note values in elementary math. Music is a sequential subject. Everything new one learns is predicated on comprehension and mastery of what comes before it. There are no shortcuts. Study, learn and practice one step at a time. Math and music can be used to learn and understand  that kind of discipline.

There have been trends that classical music, Mozart in particular, will make you smarter by listening to it. All you have to do is listen. This baffles me, but I can promise you that I have known people who assumed that I was smart because I heard a lot of Mozart as a child (and I did). How about the gene pool? Count for anything? These hypotheses have since been more or less unproven, at least the listening to Mozart will make you smarter thing.

Mozart was a true genius. There has never been anyone else like him to date. I think there are a few others with this kind of genius–Da Vinci, Mozart, Einstein and Bernstein come to mind. Musicians come in two types (from my experience): those who excel at math and those who don’t. There is no middle ground. Mathematical ability is not a referendum on musical ability. I have known great conductors for whom the discipline of mathematics eluded them. I think this has more to do with a right brain/left brain thing, and musicians come in both varieties.  The idea of music making you smarter has always sounded a bit humorous to me. Music isn’t good enough all by itself, it has to make you smarter too? Music doesn’t add creative expression, beauty and pleasure to our quality of life?
I believe this whole idea is just a way to sell the arts. I am for that, but we need to keep it real. Music does enhance critical thinking skills. You have to do more than one thing at a time, and that multi-tasking is good for the brain. Music is a sequential skill, also good for the brain and very similar to math. How else does music relate to or enhance math skills? The study of sound, acoustics, uses math and physics. Scales and key relationships have a mathematical connection. Music uses numbers, counting, and rhythm. Harmonics or harmony is founded in math and numerical relationships and connections.  Specific sounds or colors characterize both pleasing and unpleasing harmonies founded on those relationships. A musical scale is a pattern of numbers. Music and math both have patterns and a unique language. Composition in music employs meter, rhythm and pitch– all related to numbers. Tuning and harmonics use math as infrastructure, and complex math at that. Pythagoras (remember him from Algebra?) created the theory of tuning through ratios of notes and sounds. Composers have even used the Golden Ratio in composing. (French composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie and Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, for example).

Are we at the point now where we don’t have to mandate children listen to classical music to make them smarter?  Can we listen for the obvious other good reasons? I understand that there have been studies to disprove listening to classical music makes you smarter, but there is still a math/music connection. Music can help in comprehension of math. It is another way of looking at its practical application that may appeal. Music is an important part of core learning.  It can make math experiential. Kids can learn spatial and sequencing skills. Everyone likes some kind of music. It is a whole world of communication. And even if that doesn’t make you smarter, it will make your life and learning better!

An article which discusses both current and past studies of the music making you smarter myth is HERE.

An article about Mozart using mathematics in his compositions is HERE.

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