Music in Math!

The following is a discussion of brain learning theory from: Music With the Brain In Mind, by Eric Jensen,

        As we listen to music, the features of it parallel many highly complex brain functions that are necessary for memory, word sequence, and visualization. Music often has a rhythmic or rhyming quality, making it easier to remember. It is, of course, sequenced, which encourages us to try to recall songs we like, thus engaging memory. It can also become a soundtrack for what we see or visualize. As a result, we can say music enhances the ability to create, maintain, transform, and relate complicated mental representation. This is done with or without sensory input or feedback. And while there are specific areas where there is more activation, all higher cognitive abilities as a wide range of cortical areas. The following represent at least four reasons why music may be activating and improving spatial-temporal reasoning and proportional math skills:

Music   Math
interval relationships
distance practice enhances spatial ability
eighth/quarter/half/whole notes creates sense of proportions
playing an instrument requires planning ahead enhances sense of timing and coordination
listening has temporal elements improves problem sequencing
melodic/rhythmic patterns predicting/sequencing


     It appears that some music training can produce long-term modification in the right pre-frontal and left cortical areas. The value of this study to educators is that it speaks to the tasks of learning proportions in mathematics. In fact, interviews with mathematicians suggest that music often leads to the higher brain function typical of math. Possibly the structured neuronal firing pattern elicited by music strengthens the proportionality of precise pattern-making structures necessary for the spatial-temporal skills of math. Because the understandings of proportions and spatial reasoning is essential to math skills, it’s easy to see how music became the “math booster.”

        A huge part of the direct value of playing music comes from gains in spatial-reasoning, a building block of proportional math. Unless students master proportions and the ability to create, hold, and manipulate objects in space, they’ll be stuck in the world of math by memorization, which doesn’t work amidst infinite combinations and relationships. This critical spatial-cognitive sense allows learners to progress into fields such as engineering, lasers, robotics, design, statistics, construction, art, computations, and genetics.

        Studying adults, Lawrence Parsons of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Health Science Research Imaging Center found that auditory rhythm, but not melody/harmony, enhanced both visualization and mental rotation, and that dynamic abstract visual stimuli enhanced both, as well. The results were approximately the same for auditory and visual rhythm primers as they were for Mozart. This study suggests that either auditory rhythm or rhythmic visual stimuli can lead to short-term enhancement of mental rotation – a useful spatial-temporal skill. The study also suggests that music in general (Mozart’s music in particular) is effective because it possesses multiple lines of rhythmic streams. Even non-musical rhythms (such as rain forest recordings) were found by Parsons to produce comparable effect; and more complex rhythmic sounds lead to even greater enhancement than very simple rhythmic sounds.

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