The Correlation Between Music and Math

Dhwani Shah
June 20, 2023
3 min read
“Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” — Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz.

We’ve always viewed math and music as widely different, one a systematic, objective science and the other, an inspiring, emotional art. However, on a closer look, music and math are deeply interlaced and have more in common than may meet the eye.

The Brain Game

Our brain is arguably the most complex organ of our body. Everything happens in our brain. Different hemispheres of the brain are associated with different functions - the right brain dominates our creative, holistic and emotional side, while the left side of the brain is associated with logical and analytical thinking. And since we associate music with creativity and math with logic, we assume that each of these disciplines is controlled by a distinct side of the brain. 

Recent research has shown that each brain hemisphere processes frequencies and sounds differently. Which means that by listening to music which reaches and stimulates a certain side of your brain (classical music and minor tones for the left side, upbeat music and major tones for the right side), you can possibly create more balance between the two sides. Over the years, Dr. Robert Melillo has worked with a composer to develop a line of music that specifically addresses strengthening each hemisphere. Interestingly, Einstein used to play the violin when he was stuck on a mathematical problem. By concentrating on the problem at hand (left brain) while playing the piano or violin (right brain), he was able to strengthen the communication between the two hemispheres of his brain and increase brain power.

Recognizing Patterns

Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato believed in the existence of a solid connection between music and mathematics and even included music as a genre of mathematics. As absurd as it sounds, all music is essentially math.  Music has rhythms, tempos, beats, and measures, and these are full of fractions and ratios. There are whole notes, half notes and quarter notes; a waltz is normally in ‘¾’ timing. Those who perform music need to have a good understanding of mathematical concepts.

Infact, Beethoven, one of the greatest composers in history, was deaf for most of his lifetime. Some of his most moving compositions - like the Moonlight Sonata - were created based on the mathematical patterns of the sounds.

Studies even show that children who play instruments are able to complete complex mathematical problems better than peers who do not.

Music involves creating patterns of sound, whereas math is the study of patterns. Researchers believe that some composers use definite mathematical structures in their music - for example,  Pachelbel’s Canon in D - that contribute to their popularity. These patterns appeal to our innate inclination towards structure, repetition and patterns. This seems to be why we easily remember the chorus of songs. 

While mathematics studies the relationships between numbers, music does the same with notes, rhythm and timing. So music and math certainly have more in common than we thought. 

Spatial-Temporal Reasoning

Learning and solving math involves the spatial region of the brain. Some research finds that music activates those areas of the brain that are required to solve problems associated with spatial-temporal reasoning, which is the ability to mentally move objects in space and time to solve multi-step problems. You may have heard of The “Mozart effect”, which claims that listening to Mozart’s music improves children’s general intelligence. Though this is not an entirely accurate assumption, research has found out that enrolling children for any kind of music lessons from a young age helps them perform tasks involving spatial-temporal reasoning more effectively, especially in math which involves spatial memory.

Cognitive Ability and Math Skills

A considerable amount of research suggests that listening to music may improve cognitive skills and the ability to learn math. A study showed that listening to music during a math test could improve performance by 40 percent. According to another study, just the tapping of a beat helped children learn fractions at a faster pace. In general, kids tend to retain information better when it’s associated with music and dance as opposed to only verbal instructions. 

While listening to music may be beneficial in improving cognition and math skills, performing music presents other advantages. Learning an instrument requires immense dedication and patience, which are qualities that help children to excel not only in school, but in life as well. It has also been found that children who play a musical instrument have a better memory and attention span, improved fine motor skills and greater creativity.

Learning music at an early age can provide not only an academic advantage, but, and more importantly, also joy, relief and an outlet for emotions.

As Pythagoras said, “There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” All we have to do is watch them converge and feel the magic unfold!

Dhwani Shah

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