The Relationship Between Math and Music

Music is usually a favorite class among elementary school children. Older students often opt to continue their study of the subject by joining the school band or orchestra to learn how to play an instrument.

Math, at first mention, may seem like it's at the opposite end of the spectrum. After all, students are often good at math and science or arts and music. In reality, though, mathematics and music are intertwined and can be used to supplement one another in the classroom.

Math for Music Teachers

Musicians understand that math is pertinent in music. They have to count beats and rhythms each time they play even the simplest of tunes.

Reading music is almost like reading math symbols; the notes, rests, and other symbols represent information about the song. Music is also divided into sections known as measures. Each measure is then divided into beats.

Counting and Dividing Musical Beats

Music teachers, even those at the preschool or elementary school level, can explain to children that those beats are simply numbers and math! An easy way to demonstrate is to tap your foot or clap your hands while listening to a song. Say "One-two-three-four" as you tap or clap.

To visually show children that those claps and taps are math, draw a row of rectangles on the board to represent measures of music. Each measure will contain four beats.

  • Draw a whole note in one measure. A whole note represents four beats.
  • "Cut" the whole note in half by drawing two half notes in the next measure. A half note represents two beats; therefore two half notes still represent four beats in the measure.
  • "Cut" the half notes into quarter notes. A quarter note will represent one beat; therefore four quarter notes still represent four beats in the measure.
  • You can even "cut" the quarter notes into eighth notes. An eighth note represents one-half of a beat; therefore eight eighth notes still represents four beats in the measure!

When working with slightly older students, it's easy to make this math/music activity a bit more challenging.

  • A dotted half note represents three beats; therefore a dotted half note followed by a quarter note represents four beats.
  • Sixteenth notes represent one-quarter of a beat; therefore four sixteenth notes represent one beat.
  • Teach the various types of rests, or silent beats, and incorporate them into your counting lesson, too!

Music for Math Teachers

This same idea can be used during math lessons. Even if you don't consider yourself much of a musician, a few minutes of online research or a short discussion with a music teacher at your school can give you a quick overview of notes and rests.

Linking Music and Fractions

Music notes are a great way to teach fractions, especially if the children are already studying the value of notes and rests during music class.

  • Draw four rectangles on the board.
  • Draw a whole note in one rectangle. Write the number 1 beside this rectangle.
  • Divide a second rectangle into two equal sections. Draw a half note in each section. Write the fraction ½ in each section to show that ½ + ½ = 1.
  • Divide a third rectangle into four equal pieces. Draw a quarter note in each piece. Write the fraction ¼ in each section to show that ¼ + ¼ + ¼ + ¼ = 1.

This lesson can also be adapted for older students. For example, divide a rectangle into eight equal pieces. Draw an eighth note in each piece. Write the fraction 1/8 in each piece to show that all together, the pieces still equal one measure.

Can Music Improve Your Math Skills?

Students who are good at math are often good at music, too. In 2004, The University of Notre Dame reported that several studies found many brilliant mathematicians and scientists are also talented musicians. Statistics from the College Board, released in 2001, found that musically-inclined students scored higher on the math section of the SAT.

Some experts are skeptical of any math/music connection and believe these statistics are coincidental, particularly because there is little evidence that the opposite is true—learning music doesn't appear to improve a person's math skills.

Regardless, even if learning how to read music or play an instrument won't turn anyone into a math genius, studying music teaches children discipline and dedication. Practicing for piano lessons for a set time each day help students realize that practicing helps their skills improve, a rewarding feat in itself.