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Want to Get Better at Math? Play the Piano
Do you wish your math skills were better? Or that your child didn’t struggle with basic math skills? Perhaps what you need (along with an expert tutor) is a piano. Or a guitar. Or maybe a clarinet and drums. The key to understanding mathematics, it seems, depends on the ability to understand how numbers relate to each other, and nothing demonstrates this better than music.
For starters, the music keeps up. The rate depends on something called a time signature which designates how many beats there are per measure (in math this would be known as a unit) It also determines what type of note a measure will be assigned to. And this is expressed as a fraction. For example, a common time signature is 4/4 time. The top number tells you that there are four beats in a bar (a unit of music), and the bottom number, the other 4, tells you that the quarter note has a beat. From a fraction perspective, in 4/4 time the quarter note represents 1/4 of the measure. In other words, it takes four 1/4s or four quarter notes to make a whole measure.
And then there are the notes themselves. Two blacks (two ¼) are equal to what is known as half (1/2). In other words, 2/4 = 1/2. It also takes 4 quarter notes to equal a whole note… Or, put another way, 4/4=1.
This is just the beginning. The amount of mathematics in music is infinite. What makes it so conducive to improving the ability to do simple arithmetic or manipulate complicated mathematical proofs is that when you play music, you’re actually performing mathematical calculations every beat along the way. And, it’s done in such a multi-sensory way that math isn’t just seen, it’s felt, heard, and in many cases, loved. It becomes a part of you. Music and mathematics are eternal dance partners who, together, perform dazzling feats. While the musician’s fingers fly over the keyboard of a piano or pluck the strings of a guitar creating magnificent melodies, mathematics – the conductor – orchestrates it silently and almost invisibly.
So how do we know that being musical makes you better at math? Logic would tell us that probably it should. The evidence that it does, however, is supported by much more than simple logic. In a study conducted by San Francisco State University, it was found that students who engaged in music-based math instruction “scored 50% higher on a fractions test, taken at the end of the ‘study, compared to students in the regular math class.” (SF State News, 2012)
Researchers Joyce Cheek and Lyle Smith of Augusta State University took it a step further. They compared the ITBS (i.e., Iowa Test of Basic Skills) scores of students who had received group music instruction with those who had received private tutoring. They found that “students who had private tutoring for two or more years performed significantly higher on the composite mathematics portion of the ITBS than those students who had no private tutoring.” (Cheek & Smith, 1998) And the instrument that eclipsed them all? the piano
But is it necessary to play an instrument to reap the benefits of music? Apparently not. The ability to perform mathematical calculations can simply improve listening to the music while you do them. That is, if it is music without words. This is commonly known as The Mozart effectand has inspired some teachers to use classical background music in the classroom on a regular basis.
As a tutor, I have learned through observation and experience that soft, unobtrusive music is a great help in helping students focus and concentrate. Perhaps this is achieved through the phenomenon known as brain drag in which brain waves synchronize with external energy patterns. Or maybe it’s just that relaxing music can dispel anxiety—the absolute kiss of death when it comes to staying focused.
While how and why it works is still somewhat of a mystery, the fact remains that it does. Music is proving to be the magical element that helps students improve their scores in almost every subject, including the most intimidating of all, math. That’s why you’ll always find a bit of Bach, Beethoven or Mozart floating through the air in my classroom at the Avalon Learning Center. I personally consider these legendary composers to be valued and valuable partners in my mission to guide each student to success. So far, they are doing a great job… and posthumously!
San Francisco State University. special education SF State News (University Communications). Getting into a rhythm helps kids understand fractions study findings. University Communications, December 22, 2012. Web. December 20, 2015, < http://www.sfsu.edu/~news/prsrelea/fy12/031.html >.
United States. Education Department. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Musical training and mathematical performance of ninth graders. By Joyce M. Cheek and Lyle R. Smith. Columbus: Educational Resources Information Center, 1998. ERIC [EBSCO]. Web. December 20, 2015,
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