Classical Music, Intelligence, and Math Learning

There is much debate surrounding whether or not listening to classical music affects intelligence (read the Science Daily’s pro take and the Skeptic’s Dictionary’s con.)

Official studies aside, I personally believe the connection with music is not only to intelligence, but also to math. Especially for those who play(ed) instruments.

OK, so I don’t know if Madonna aced the math portion of her SATs, if Ozzy Osbourne can do long division in his head, or if Itzhak Perlman is a wiz at calculus. However, in my career, I have been privileged to work with some extraordinary people. And when the topic of music comes up, I often hear that these people not only listened to classical music, they played it. In fact, during my most recent conversation on this topic, I learned that one of the DreamBox programmers whom I admire played in a professional symphony at 16!

The Connection Between Music and Math Learning

There are some direct connections between playing music and doing math. Especially when reading musical notation. For example, the math involved in understanding the duration of each note (ex: a full note is played twice as long as a half note which is played twice as long as a quarter note, etc.). And understanding the fractional time signature in musical notation, where the top number is how many beats are in a measure and the bottom number is the type of note that gets one beat (Ex: 6/8 means there are 6 beats in a measure and an eighth note gets one beat). Yeah, maybe I didn’t understand all the nuances of time signatures when I started violin in 3rd grade. But eventually I learned all that.

Boy using violin for music learning skills

There are also less obvious connections between music and math. Like learning that certain chords sound good together, or sound happy or sad. And learning to memorize how to play a song by remembering the written notes, specific physical movements to make with the instrument or body, and/or the actual musical progression.

No matter what the connection is between music and math, I loved playing music while I was growing up. And even though I hated to practice my violin and I still sounded like Frankenstein after playing for years, I appreciate all that music gave to me. I believe that I got a strong foundation which made mathematical and scientific concepts easier to grasp. I got an appreciation for various cultural arts and the skills needed to be good at them. I got the ability to listen to a song and say, “Hey, I played that!” And I got lifelong friends (and co-workers) who share an appreciation for the connection between music and math.

That reminds me, one time, at band camp… Arrowbear Music Camp was the place that kept me playing and practicing year after year. But I’ll save that for another post!

  • Although, I’m not a musician I agree with the idea that music is capable of improving cognitive functioning. However, it’s probably more than just listening to a classical piece, but in moving the fingers to manipulate the instrument, whether it’s pucking the strings of a guitar or placing the fingers over the holes of a pan flute and of course in a manner appropriate for the music played.
    Developing musical ability does require higher brain functions and through deligent practice could promote neurological connections necessary to perform with skill. A number of years ago the Japanese taught a method of learning math with one’s fingers…it was called Chisan-Bop…in fact I think this method is still used today.
    There are many styles of learning which could enhance cognitive performance…in spite of what some researchers were unable to establish in their studies or sceptics who don’t appreciate creativity in learning. As a martial art’s teacher, I have told my students over the years that martial arts is like a pair of shoes, “one not only needs to find a pair that fit, but also a pair that one likes!”
    The issue of personal perferance in how a person chooses to learn and what they desire to learn, is also of central importance. Learning is a complex process, and whatever method suits you and works…is what should be encouaged. In spite of all the voluminous articles published in scientifically refereed journals…no researcher, can say for certain, or for what reasons a particular learning strategy works for one group and doesn’t for another.