Relationship Between Math and Music
Submitted by Judith Sullivan, Ph.D. - Assistant Professor of Music Education, Tennessee Tech University
Published in ECMMA Perspectives — “Music and the Math Connection” Issue
Volume 4 Number 1 Winter 2009
Over the past several years, the relationship between music and math has received much attention in the media and educational press. This connection links musical training with mathematical skills—primarily those associated with spatial-temporal reasoning 1. Spatial-temporal reasoning is the ability to form a mental image, manipulate the image, and arrange objects in specific spatial order to match the image. This type of reasoning is important to understanding proportional concepts, such as ratios and fractions, and is a way of thinking shared by music and mathematics.
The capacity to successfully learn and retain knowledge is often based on one’s ability to organize what has been learned into patterns. Recognizing patterns serves as a means for a person to remember things. Music is rich with patterns; rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, and formal patterns can all be found in a piece of music. Because music, like math, is an abstract way of thinking, spatial-temporal reasoning is exercised when musical patterns are sought out, identified, and experienced.
Another dimension in which music and math are connected is through one’s conceptualization of the relationship of parts to the wholes. In mathematics this concept may be found in the understanding of percentages, decimals, and fractions. The musical corollary exists in the subdivision of the rhythmic pulse and the organization of the underlying rhythmic and harmonic structures of music. In the conceptualization of parts to wholes rhythmic instruction may be more effective than vocal or piano instruction. (Those little percussion instruments may be more important than we thought!)
How does all of this information relate to early childhood music education? Early childhood music teachers employ patterns in teaching young children. From the very start of early childhood music classes, patterns are heard, recited, and recognized through singing, chanting, playing instruments, and movement. Young children become able to visualize and internalize patterns, understanding their individual components by manipulating, combining and re-combining them, and relating them to the greater whole. As young children develop musical skills and their appreciation for music, they are also developing cognitive abilities that will benefit them in music, mathematics, and life. Through the thinking skills held in common between music and mathematical spatial-temporal reasoning the young child’s mental capacity is further enriched.
A music education for young children encourages modes of thinking that other subjects do not. Winner and Hetland (2007) state that the arts introduce students to aesthetic appreciation and to modes of thinking valued in our society. Music and math are connected through a similar cognitive process: one that promotes understanding of underlying structure and its resultant problem-solving capability. Math is important in and of itself; music is important in and of itself. Both are worthy of inclusion in the education of young children.
1 For more information on this research, refer to the interview of Dr. Frances Rauscher and the article by Mary Anne Zupan in this issue of Perspectives.
Winner, E. & Hetland, L. (2007). Art for our sake: School art classes matter more than ever—but not for the reasons you think. The Boston Globe, September 2, 2007.