Music and Math

music and mathDo music and math talent go together?

I first heard of the connection when I was twelve and taking piano lessons.

Mrs. Stone presented a new piece of music, I put my hands to the keys and started playing.

“Wait,” she said. “You didn’t want to study and count it out?”

I tilted my head in confusion. “Count out what?”

“How did you know how to play the timing of this piece?”

It was obvious. I looked at the notes: a sprinkling of quarters, eighths, and a half note or two, and knew how it should sound.

She sat back after I explained and shook her head. “You must be good at math.”

I was.

She smiled. “That’s why you don’t have to count it; you can sense it with your intuition.”

I remembered Mrs. Stone as I wrote The Yuletide Bride and put into fiddler Ewan’s mouth an idea about the connection between music and math. Click to Tweet

music and math

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He was talking to Malcolm, a big-hearted man slumping under his inability to figure out math and the disappointment of his mercantile-owner father:

“Malcolm sighed. “No one can help me. I’m stupid.”

“Once you understand the concept and memorize the multiplication tables, it starts to make sense. The trick is to get into the rhythm. Try it. One times one is.”

Malcolm fumbled, but once Ewan put the times tables to song, the idea began to sink in.

This is not to say the only solution was a song, but it was part of what helped Malcolm. By the end of the story, he could multiply and divide–to the astonishment of his father.

Research has demonstrated the connection for years, as detailed in an article by Arvind Gupta in the April 7, 2009 Vancouver Sun:

Keith Devlin in his book, The Math Gene, points out that musicians and mathematicians alike both use abstract notation to describe on paper the patterns that exist in their mind. A trained musician reading musical symbols moves straight to “hearing” in his mind the sounds that the symbols represent. Similarly, a trained mathematician reading mathematical symbols moves directly to think about the patterns that the symbols represent.”

It’s the rhythm and patterns that musicians and mathematicians notice. They’re wired that way. Click to Tweet

Devlin works at Stanford University and in a 2005 interview with National Public Radio noted:

“Mathematics is about understanding and analyzing patterns. And music is audible patterns in time. And so reasoning about music and reasoning about mathematics, understanding music, understanding mathematics, listening to music, thinking about mathematics, at least to my mind, as a mathematician, and a mathematician who likes music but isn’t a musician, there’s a lot of similarities between them. They’re all about discerning and dealing with patterns.”

Patterns, rhythms, encouraging Malcolm he could apply himself and helping him do so, worked in The Yuletide Bride.

Of course my story is fiction.

Some of you may remember the  Inchworm song from the Danny Kaye movie Hans Christian Anderson.

(This emphasis on music and math is not the same thing as The Mozart Effect, which was popularized in the 1990s and debunked since then–that listening to classical music can increase your child’s IQ.)

Malcolm’s math education also was aided by  “math manipulatives” when Ewan took him to the river bank and picked up a handful of stones:

“While they ate their dinner, Ewan demonstrated multiplication with piles of small stones. “Two times three is taking two piles of three stones and putting them together. How many do you have?”

“Malcolm ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, pondering. “Six?”

music and mathI grew up playing with Lego (three dimensional math) and Monopoly (ten squares to a side); they had a significant influence on my understanding relationships and mathematical skills.

My kids played with the same toys.

Everyone in my family plays a musical instrument or sings.

And they’re all good at math.

Interested in possibly winning a copy of The Yuletide Bride, or the grand prize: all 12 novellas in The 12 Brides of Christmas Collection? Enter a raffle here! Raffle closes at midnight on Friday, November 8, with the winners announced the next day:

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Are music and math skills related to each other? Click to Tweet

If you’re interested in seeing how Malcolm’s life was changed by the addition of rhythm to the times tables, consider reading The Yuletide Bride, available here for a mere 99 cents!music and math


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  1. roscuro

     /  October 29, 2014

    Sorry, Michelle, I would have to disagree, based on personal experience. I am a musician – good enough to get some paying jobs – but I am not good at math. Oh, I can do the basics fine, but I simply do not think naturally in numbers. Probably as result of that, rhythm was the last thing to mature in my musical style.

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