Is there really a connection between math skills and musical skills?

It’s an idea that has become so widespread that it’s repeated like gospel: people who are good at math are often also good at music. Most of us know someone who fits the stereotype. Maybe it was a kid at school who got high marks in math class And could rattle off a Mozart piano sonata in no time. Maybe it was your deskmate from the orchestra who later became a rocket scientist. But how much truth is there actually in it?

Why do we believe there is a connection between music and math skills?

There are plenty of examples of high-profile musicians with a mathematical background, and quite a few famous scientists who have been in the spotlight as composers or instrumentalists.

Take Queen’s lead guitarist, Sir Brian May, who has recently been in the news for his work as an astrophysicist who helped map the anatomy of the most dangerous asteroid known. Another well-known face in the astrophysics world is Professor Brian Cox, but did you know he once played keyboard for the 90s band D:Ream?

In the classical world we have the influential composer Philip Glass, who studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Then there is the pioneering astronomer and discoverer of Uranus William Herschel, who also managed to find time to compile a large catalog of musical works for a variety of instruments.

And perhaps the doyen of them all: Pythagoras himself. Although best known for the famous theorem that would put you to sleep in school (something triangular?) and his somewhat eccentric views on beans, the so-called “father of numbers” also made some of the first major steps in understanding of the basics of beans. harmonies that are still applicable in Western music composition today.

But while the famous examples may grab our attention, there is such a thing as confirmation bias. For every polymath (no pun intended) out there, there will be dozens of mathematicians who can’t tell a piccolo from a viola, and a whole lot of musicians who would be lost without their smartphone calculators.

However, there’s no denying that the idea has stuck, and it might be partly because – as ancient Pythag noted – music and mathematics themselves are linked in fundamental ways.

“The two have a surprising amount in common,” Dr. Ayça Akın, a researcher from the Department of Software Engineering at Antalya Belek University in Turkey, told IFLScience.

“Think of symbols and symmetry. Both subjects also require abstract thinking and quantitative reasoning. Arithmetic lends itself particularly well to being taught with music, as fractions and ratios are also fundamental to music.”

“Math is about numbers and fractions. If you replace those numbers with notes, rhythm and tempos, you get music.”

Some higher education institutions allow students with a dual passion for music and mathematics to take advantage of this by pursuing joint studies in both disciplines. The prestigious science and medicine university Imperial College London, together with the neighboring Royal College of Music, offers a four-year joint bachelor’s program in physics and music performance. The University of Edinburgh offers Mathematics and Music as an undergraduate course, which focuses on the theoretical and cultural aspects of music in addition to the mathematics courses.

Despite all this, it is fair to say that for most of us the music training we received was quite far removed from our mathematical training. But could we be missing a trick there? Could combining these two seemingly disparate topics be beneficial for the next generation of children?

Luckily for us, fascinating research is already being done in this area and we were able to work with Dr. Akın talk about a recent study she conducted, with the aim of answering precisely these types of questions.

Should music and mathematics education be combined?

In this study, Dr. Akın hunting through half a century of scientific literature. She was interested to find out if there was any evidence that teaching music to young children could help them develop their math skills, so she looked through articles published between 1975 and 2022.

“Math is not easy for every child,” said Dr. Akın to IFLScience. “Recent math scores among students in developed countries are at their lowest levels in decades, raising concerns among parents, educators and authorities.”

There are no easy answers to this problem, but Dr. Akın was interested in the growing body of interdisciplinary research in education.

“Although math and music are treated as two distant subjects in schools, I view math and music as two disciplines that are close to each other,” she explains.

From her search of the literature, she identified 55 studies for further analysis, with data from nearly 78,000 students of all ages, from kindergarten to college.

“I analyzed three different music interventions,” she told IFLScience. “The first involved general music intervention, where children learn to sing and listen to music […] In the second intervention, children learned to play a musical instrument both individually and in a band […] And with the third intervention, music became an important part of the math lesson; music-mathematics integrated interventions in which music is integrated into mathematics in different ways.”

In all cases, the arithmetic skills of the children who participated in the different interventions were tested before and after the study period.

“In general,” explained Dr. Akın explains, “music in any form was associated with better math scores.”

“To summarize the findings, 58 percent of children who had received regular music lessons and 69 percent of children who had learned to play a musical instrument performed better on math tests.”

“But,” she adds, “the integrated lessons in particular had a great effect. Because no fewer than 73 percent of the students who also received music lessons during math lessons noticed progress.”

The magnitude of the observed effects came as a surprise to the researcher.

Dr. Akın also explained that the interventions had the greatest effect in younger age groups. This seems to indicate that the best way forward is to embed music into the math curriculum from an early stage, an idea that could evoke shouts of joy or consternation from math teachers, depending on their own musical prowess.

Music just makes math more fun.

Dr. Ayça Akın

In Turkey, where Dr. Akın is established, like much of the rest of the world, musical interventions are not often included in mathematics education. It’s something she would like to see change.

“Based on the results of the study, it is believed that interdisciplinary learning environments in which math and music teachers can work together can help increase students’ math achievement and beliefs and reduce students’ math anxiety.”

This second point is another important part of all of this: in addition to actually helping to improve students’ math skills, there is some evidence that the addition of music can help people who are worried about math.

“Even children who have difficulty with math and have therefore developed a certain fear of math can relax a little more thanks to music,” says Dr. Akın. “Music just makes math more fun.”

This makes sense, given what we know about how music can benefit our well-being at all stages of life. A recent report from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 75 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 80 say music “relieves stress or relaxes,” and 60 percent say it “motivates or energizes” ‘, which sounds like the ideal state of life. Make sure you are present before starting a math lesson.

The feelings evoked by music also seem remarkably universal across human cultures. Recent research from the University of Turku in Finland found that Western and Asian listeners experience similar emotions and physical sensations when listening to the same tunes. This suggests that interventions that bring music into the math classroom could have broad appeal.

But what could these interventions actually look like? Dr. Akın has some suggestions.

How do you bring music and mathematics together?

“Music in math lessons can be designed in different ways,” she explained.

“For example, students can clap their hands in time to songs with different rhythms. You could even design musical instruments using mathematics. In addition, mathematical problems can be solved using original pieces of music. Or the other way around: creating pieces of music based on mathematical patterns. Mathematics can also be represented in alternative ways, for example in musical notes.”

Dr. Akın emphasized that this does not have to mean an additional financial burden on schools; simple rhythmic instruments that would do the job just fine could even be made by the students themselves. It’s about helping children see math in a new way, one that will hopefully be more accessible, especially for those who have struggled in the past.

“These methods not only help children understand key mathematical concepts, but also enable them to see the parallels and connections between math and music, creating a richer and more engaging learning environment,” said Dr. Akın. “I believe this is an important way to engage students in math and have fun.”

Mathematics is an extremely important skill. A good foundation in the world of numbers can help kids whether they want to start their own business, cure the next pandemic disease, solve a long-standing mathematical mystery, or simply navigate the adult world with confidence.

But it’s fair to say that learning math doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Why not try something that might improve that learning process? According to Dr. Akın, and many of the authors of the articles included in her analysis, it makes sense that music would fit into this picture.

“Mathematics and music may seem like two very different worlds, but they actually go very well together.”

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