Why Are You Teaching Math in Music Class?

As I was teaching rhythm this week to my 5th grade class, specifically a lesson on 8th notes, I asked if they had learned fractions yet in math. As I went on to explain that an 8th note has the duration of half of a beat, one student asked, somewhat antagonistically, why I was teaching math during music class. After all, they were there for music.

The short answer is that music relates to every other aspect of life.

I’m not exaggerating.

I’m not going to try to prove that studying music will improve a student’s academic performance, even though studies show it does. I will argue that studying music changes the way a person views the world.

It is easy to see a relationship between music and math. This relationship is probably the most discussed, a thread that goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks who believed that music was a “mathematical and philosophical description of how the universe was perceived to be constructed.”

Ratios, rhythm, patterns, measuring intervals, inversions, chord structures, harmonics, the overtone series, the structure of instruments and how they produce sound, frequencies and intonation – it’s all math.

And science, too.

How much one learns in each of these areas depends on how deeply one studies music and what specific area of music one focuses on. While a performer may have a general idea of harmonics and how to produce them on their instrument, the sine and cosine of a sound wave is much more important to an instrument maker or someone who composes electronic music.

Music relates to math, and science.

And language, too.

I told my students that I would not be talking about just math and science in class, but also English and language in general.

How does music relate to language?

Many pieces of music throughout the ages have been inspired by story. Composers such as Joseph Haydn and Darius Milhaud wrote pieces inspired by stories of the creation of the world. Richard Strauss wrote a piece based on Don Quixote. Many operas and musicals are settings of plays. Leonard Bernstein’s musical, “West Side Story,” is a re-imagination of Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo and Juliet.” Many poems are set to music, and that involves consideration of rhyme, accent, and speech cadence. Word painting can become tone painting. Onomatopoeia in a poem may be demonstrated with an instrument. Music is a living form of communication, as notation develops and shifts the same way that new words, spellings, and grammatical conventions change in a language, a topic I address in my blog post, The Limits of Musical Notation.

Music also relates to history and culture. Obviously, there is the history of music itself. But the music written in any given time period is deeply influenced by the culture in which the composer lives: the philosophy of the day, the instruments available, the economy, the level of nationalistic sentiment, and various shared significant experiences (in our day, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the COVID-19 pandemic are examples.)

Music also involves psychology. It is directly connected to our sense of perception, especially hearing and kinesthesia. Music helps us identify and express emotion. It can help build self-confidence and manage depression and other mental illness. It can help soothe pain and even aid those with dementia.

When one studies music all these things are addressed, in one way or another, sooner or later.

But there is one more thing I want to mention: social cohesion.

I have always considered music a social activity, but since I have been teaching general music to grades PreK-8 in a school, I have seen the value of music in developing social connection more than ever before.

When making music, all participants are moving in the same direction, at the same time, at the same speed. Each person may have something different to do at any one point. One person may be resting while another person is playing fast notes, but the beat continues on the same for all. Music helps a group work together as one. It’s not just about having a shared goal, like a sports team in which each person on the field fulfills a role while some may sit on the bench. It’s about moving together. There’s a reason why music, including chanting, is used during marches, even by the military. There’s a reason why work songs were used on ships or in the fields. There’s a reason music normally accompanies dance. That steady beat unites us all, like the heartbeat of a collective organism.

Moving together is not a natural skill. If it was, my second-graders would be able to pass a bean bag around a circle in time with the beat. But they can’t, not yet. It is something they will learn, along with math, science, language, and social studies.

In music class.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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