Wish your math skills were better? Or that your child didn’t struggle with basic arithmetic skills? Maybe what you need (along with a knowledgeable tutor) is a piano. Or a guitar. Or maybe a clarinet and some drums. The key to understanding math, it seems, hinges on the ability to comprehend how numbers relate to one another, and nothing demonstrates that any better than music.
For starters, music keeps a beat. The beat is dependent on something called a time signature which designates how many beats there are per measure (in math this would be known as a unit) It also determines which type of note is going to be assigned one beat. And, it expresses this as a fraction. For example, a common time signature is 4/4 time. The top number indicates there are four beats in a measure (a unit of music), and the bottom number, the other 4, tells you that the quarter note gets one beat. From a fraction perspective, in 4/4 time the quarter note represents 1/4th of the measure. In other words, it takes four 1/4ths- or four quarter notes- to make up a whole measure.
And then there are the notes themselves. Two quarter notes (two ¼’s) equal what is known as a half (1/2) note. In other words, 2/4 = 1/2. It also takes 4 quarter notes to equal a whole note… Or, put another way, 4/4=1.
This is only the beginning. The amount of math in music is endless. What makes it so conducive to enhancing the ability to do simple arithmetic or manipulate complicated mathematical proofs is that when you play music, you are actually performing math calculations every beat of the way. And, it is done in such a multi-sensory fashion that math is not only observed- it is felt, heard and, in many cases, loved. It becomes a part of you. Music and math are perpetual dance partners who, together, perform dazzling feats. As the fingers of the musician fly over the keyboard of a piano or pluck at the strings of a guitar creating magnificent melodies, math – the conductor – quietly and almost invisibly orchestrates it all.
So how do we know that being musical makes you better at math? Logic would tell us that it probably should. The evidence that it does, however, is supported by much more than simple logic. In a study conducted by San Francisco State University, it was found that students who engaged in music based math instruction “scored 50% higher on a fractions test, taken at the end of the study, compared to students in the regular math class”. (SF State News, 2012)
Researchers Joyce Cheek and Lyle Smith from Augusta State University took it one step farther. They compared the ITBS scores (that’s Iowa Test of Basic Skills) of students who had received music instruction in a group to those who had received private tutoring. They found that “students who had private lessons for two or more years performed significantly higher on the composite mathematics portion of the ITBS than those students who did not have private lessons”. (Cheek & Smith, 1998) And the instrument that outshined them all? The piano.
But is it necessary to actually play an instrument to reap the benefits of music? Apparently not. The ability to perform math calculations can improve simply by listening to music while you are doing them. That is, if it’s music without words. This is commonly known as The Mozart Effect, and it has inspired some teachers to use background classical music in the classroom on a regular basis.
As a tutor, I have learned through observance and experimentation that soft, unobtrusive music is a great aid in helping students to concentrate and focus. Perhaps this is accomplished through the phenomenon known as brain entrainment in which brain waves synchronize with exterior energy patterns. Or, maybe it’s simply that relaxing music can dispel anxiety- the absolute kiss of death when it comes to staying focused.
Though how and why it works still remains a bit of a mystery, the fact is it works. Music is proving to be the magical element that helps students improve achievement scores in almost every single subject, including the most intimidating of all- math. For that reason you will always find a little Bach or Beethoven or Mozart drifting through the air in my classroom at Avalon Learning Center. Personally, I consider these legendary composers to be treasured and valuable partners in my mission to guide each student to success. So far, they are doing a great job… and posthumously at that!
San Francisco State University. Special Education. SF State News (University Communications). Getting in Rhythm Helps Children Grasp Fractions Study Finds. University Communications, 22 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Dec. 2015, < http://www.sfsu.edu/~news/prsrelea/fy12/031.html >.
United States. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Music Training and Mathematics Achievement of Ninth Graders. By Joyce M. Cheek and Lyle R. Smith. Columbus: Educational Resources Information Center, 1998. ERIC [EBSCO]. Web. 20 Dec. 2015,