By Arctic Meta
For almost as long as they have existed, arts and sciences have long stayed on separate sides of a fence. For most of us, we tend to see them as completely different things. We even associate them with different sides of the brain and give them different weights depending on the conversations we are having.
It’s no surprise then that people tend to view music and mathematics in much the same way. Music is art, it’s creative, it’s artistic and incredibly different to math, right? Math is analytical, scientific and logical. Music and mathematics couldn’t be any more different.
Well, they are different disciplines, but they’re also incredibly similar too. Music and math actually have a lot more in common than you might think, and you can actually use music to help children learn mathematics.
So how exactly can music help improve the mathematical abilities of children? Does it help early learners? How can you integrate music into a math lesson? Read on to find out all this and more.
How Music Can Help Improve Learning Mathematics
Music can definitely be used to help improve the mathematics skills of any student. For a start, music is actually a lot more analytical and mathematical than you might think.
To effectively play music, you need to develop your critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
You also often need to do several things at once. You need to read music and translate that into a physical action with your hands, fingers, mouth, tongue, lungs, and even feet (if you’re lucky enough to be a drummer).
You’re doing all of this to express yourself artistically, but the process of turning that music on paper into a physical action is actually a bit of a mathematical equation in itself.
You need to understand that a certain piece of musical language translates or a particular movement, and when things change, you need to learn how to compensate for it. In a lot of ways, this practice is a bit similar to the principles of algebra.
Music is also full of fractions. There are whole notes, half notes and quarter notes, all of which follow the same rules that they would in a math equation. There’s also rhythms and tempos involved. Most of us can remember elementary school music lessons where we learned that a waltz is normally in ‘¾’ timing.
Mathematics is quite literally the study of the relationships between numbers, and basically, if you replace those numbers with notes, rhythm and timing, you have music.
Using Music to Build Mathematical Skills in Early Learners
You might have seen children musically engaging with mathematics without even realizing it.
Often one of the first ways kids learn counting is through rhythm. They might bop along to their favourite song and clap their hands together.
In the beginning, it’s probably completely out of sync, but after a while, they get better because anyone who has kids knows that they love repetition (how many parents have seen Frozen a million times?).
The kind of repetition that young learners are particularly responsive to is called ‘rote’, and it is a key player in helping them to form foundational mathematical skills, and this goes beyond them learning to say ‘1, 2, 3, 4’.
Music also helps young learners to distinguish things like patterns and sequences. By the time they have a favourite song, they have already begun to learn this.
They might not know the exact names of them yet, but they understand that the song is made up of different parts. There are verses and choruses, sometimes a pre-chorus and often (especially in musicals) there’s a bridge.
Kids learn to know what these are, which establishes patterns, and begin to anticipate them, which reinforces sequences. Kids also love to play with tempo, which teaches them the concept of things increasing and decreasing.
You might not have realized this, but your toddler’s favourite Wiggles song is already teaching them the basics of physics.
How to Integrate Music into Mathematics
So we know that music can enhance the retention of mathematical knowledge, but how do we use it? Well, there are many ways to get ‘the music’ into maths education, but the easiest ways to start are listed below.
Introduce the Music
We know for sure that when it comes to learning, all kids will find music way more entertaining than math equations. Children are inherently interested in music. They have been accustomed to it since they entered the world.
From the day they arrived home, they have heard songs on the radio, jingles on the TV, lullabies when they’re going to sleep, silly songs when playing; their tiny ears have become finely tuned to seek it out.
The constant presence of music in a child’s life normally means that it brings them a sense of comfort, familiarity and fun whenever it’s present. This means that by using music in education, a child is going to be at ease, interested and comfortable; three key factors in an effective education.
Getting students used to music being involved in the education of other subjects will have incredibly positive outcomes. It adds a fun element to lessons and sometimes can get them to learn things without even realizing it.
It sounds sneaky, but so is bribing your kids to take medicine, and we know it works.
Instruments are always going to spark interest in kids. It can be great to introduce them to some that are appropriate for their size.
You can easily give them some simple hand-held instruments. Things like tambourines, tom-toms, triangles, rhythm sticks or maracas.
It’s great to take the time to explain to them what each instrument does and what it is used for.
Once they have had some time to learn about them, give them some free time to play and explore the sounds it can make.
This kind of musical free time can be used as a reward for good work during a lesson, but it also gets them used to the instruments for use later when music is incorporated with math.
Present the Lesson
A great technique for early learners is to start simple.
Get the students to take their simple instruments and listen. You can play a note on a keyboard or create a percussive beat with an instrument and ask the students to match it. You can even break the group up into a kind of orchestra, separating them by the instruments they have.
Continue with the same task, asking the students to match your sound with their instrument.
Experiment with different numbers of sounds and ask them to tell you how many they heard.
You can play with the pace as well, which allows the students to begin to understand comparatives and superlatives in numbers.
You can play louder and softer and then even give them a sequence that they need to reproduce without hearing you play it first.
Set Concepts to Songs
Learning concepts through song is a great way to commit them to memory, and the results are surprisingly effective.
A great example of this for elementary school students is something like multiplication tables. There are compilations of the multiplication tables all over the internet, and taking some time each week to devote to one of them is a great way to commit them to memory.
I can actually speak from experience. I went to school in the early to mid-90s when this technique was first established, and now in my mid-30s, I can recite the entire multiplication tables from 1 to 12; and yes, when I think of them, I still sing the same songs in my head.
Teach Practical Concepts with Instruments
As you and your students become more comfortable with using music and math together, you can eventually move on to more complex concepts. You can use some of the basics of music to help explore things like fractions.
For example, you can take the concept of a musical note and introduce a whole note to the class as four beats. If that’s the case, then a quarter note would be one beat, a half note would be two and so on.
Once they understand this, you can give them the written form of the fraction and ask them to play it for you. You can even move further into more complicated fractions.
You can add a musical element to most of the basic mathematical concepts. When you are teaching the serial order of numbers, you could easily play an ascending scale on a keyboard.
The lower notes are the lower numbers, and the higher notes are the higher ones. The students then associate the pitch going up with the number rising and going down with the number decreasing.
Other Ways to Teach Mathematics Through Music
The practical applications of teaching mathematics through music go way beyond basic fractions.
Once your students have a handle on the more simple concepts, you can have free reign to adapt the musical influence to suit whatever you are teaching.
Use Musical Notes to Create Math Questions
You can use the values of musical notes to assist you in teaching addition and subtraction in the classroom.
Building on the fraction work that you have already done, your students will know that a whole note is equal to four beats; a half note is two beats; a quarter note is one beat.
You can then introduce them to the concept of the rest symbols in music, which also have the same amount of time as notes. There’s a whole rest, half rest, quarter rest; there’s even a sixteenth rest.
Once they have a handle on the symbols, you can give your students a piece of music and ask them questions about it. How many beats are there in total? How many of those beats are notes? How many of those beats are silent? What percentage of the music is played and what percentage is not?
The possibilities are endless depending on how complex the symbols and music are. This will also prepare them for future concepts like calculus and trigonometry, where symbols take the place of numbers in equations.
Understanding Rules for Notes & Instruments
Both mathematics and music have rules and formulas that make them work. Contrary to what you might think, although music is typically more artistic than math, the rules are just as strict (sometimes they can be even more, depending on what instrument you are playing).
Because we tend to interact with music long before we even have the most remote understanding of math, it can really help us to understand that when we follow the rules and formulas, we can get the desired result.
To play a song, you need to understand the individual notes, their relationship to each other and what happens to them, or the entire song if you change something.
This almost perfectly mirrors basic math equations and the relationships that numbers have to each other.
The scope of how you can use music for educational purposes is incredibly wide and doesn’t just stop at its applications with mathematics. Music is incredibly beneficial to everyone, and learning music unlocks some incredible pathways to further knowledge and skills.
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Music is a gateway to many things, and until now, you probably didn’t realize that it’s just as demanding, analytical, logical and scientific as math.
Something as simple as learning ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on the piano is actually setting your child up for bigger and better things; maybe they’ll pick up Pythagoras in a flash, maybe they’ll be a whizz in algebra, perhaps they’ll one day discover their own theory of relativity.
All you have to do is open the door to musical involvement and watch them blossom.