PANTHER PRESS: Understanding the connection between math and music

Few people understand how mathematics is connected to music. Music has to do with scales and notes. Mathematics has to do with numbers and symbols. How are they connected?

While most people may be surprised, at its core, music can be considered math. In fact, scientists understand musical structure by using math equations. They use what’s known as set theory, the branch of math that deals with properties of numbers, and abstract algebra, the branch of math that studies the structures of things, to understand music.

The “Mozart Effect” refers to research that indicates listening to Mozart’s vast work of classical music somehow temporarily makes it easier for the human brain to perform what’s called “spatial-temporal reasoning” which is the ability to visualize special patterns and then mentally manipulate those patterns. The study of geometry relies heavily on this “spatial-temporal reasoning.”

Some scientists feel that listening to Mozart makes an individual smarter, especially if it is begun at a very young age. It is presumed to have a positive effect on mental development.

In music, a beat is the interference you hear when two separate sound waves of different frequencies hit your ear at the same time. Trigonometry is the study of triangles and their planes.

So, how is music connected to this?

A beat frequency is an example of what’s known as a “product to sum” identity and that is what is used to identify triangles (trigonometry). In other words, scientists are able to define beat frequencies into an equation.

Tuning a musical instrument also uses math. The easiest example would be a piano. Notes are always a set internal from other notes, for example an interval of an eighth (an octave) corresponds to a ratio of two-to-one. When an instrument is out of tune, the octaves are no longer the proper length apart. When someone is tuning a piano, they use the Pythagorean scale to measure the distance between notes and adjust them properly.

Interestingly, it’s actually easier to understand music if you’re first mastered math. Music and math both use basic rules that remain constant no matter what action is being performed; music and math both use shapes, patterns and numbers.

At Baldwin Elementary School’s recent third and fourth grade math family night, students had the opportunity to learn about the relationship between music and fractions. We demonstrated how, when measuring capacity of a container, just as four quarts equal one gallon, four quarter notes equals a whole note in duration.

After learning capacity chants that corresponded with rhythmic note values, we collaborated with various percussion instruments to form our own “capacity counts ensemble.”

As a music teacher, I frequently take advantage of opportunities to provide cross-curricular instruction to our students here at Baldwin Elementary.

For example, I incorporate writing into my lessons by having children write their own song lyrics, or we study the Underground Railroad in relationship to the African American spiritual.

With math – it’s easy. It is automatically embedded into almost every music lesson I teach.