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Teaching Math Through Music

Music plus math equals fun

Music is in the air as August brings summer festivals of all genres to many parts of our country. It may be an inspired chamber orchestra in the park that makes your heart sing, or a jazz quartet, perhaps the ancient tribal sounds of flute and drums, or a modern high-energy rock concert. Music is a universal and ageless human experience. It is as fundamental to the world as mathematics––and in fact deeply connected to it.

Music and math have a lot in common
Music composition is a form of math exercise that counts with rhythms and tempos. Physicists identify sound as something they call a “wave.” A wave oscillates at a certain “frequency.” And that frequency creates the sound of a musical note. In other words, sound is a vibration in the air and different vibrations make different sounds.

Musicians study those sounds and make patterns with them. The creative arrangements of those patterns, and the particular instruments selected to express them, can evoke a tremendous range of feelings and effects for listeners.

For more on the math and physics of sound frequency, as well as scale patterns and logarithms in music, read this.

Music can help young children learn math
Researchers, scientists, and teachers have long known the link between music and math. And it’s just plain fun to bring them together. This enjoyment can also help students override any difficulty or resistance they may feel in their math studies. As they participate in music, they’re practicing some math basics without even realizing it.

Very young learners can find their way into geometry through movement activities like circle dances. Moving up and down and around can help build the spatial-temporal reasoning skills that are fundamental to geometry. Singing and chanting rhymes introduce children to patterns. Clapping along to rhythmic songs energizes lessons in counting and sequencing.

How about these for a few activity ideas:

  1. Have students sing a rule of math to the tune of a favorite melody to help them memorize that rule.
  2. Bring rhythm sticks, triangles, tambourines, and handheld drums to school. Then, you can all play the “musical matching” game. First, the teacher plays one key on the keyboard. Next, he or she asks students to play one beat. The teacher now plays two notes, and then three, while students match the beats and pace.
  3. Children new to math can also practice counting through music components like quarter, half, and whole notes––one, two, and four beats. Or, learn the serial order of numbers by playing up and down a keyboard scale. Maybe even draw out their own sequence of notes, and have classmate play the beats of those notes.

A teacher tells her story here of how she pulled out her portable keyboard and brought music into her classroom. What first drew “odd expressions on many small faces” became a successful part of teaching math to her young students.

This piece summarizes a bunch of interesting references with activities for students to explore the connections between math and music.

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