All Music is Math

How are math and music related? Elementary and Middle School students uncover the connection

I recently came across this quote from Eddie Van Halen: “Obviously you have to have rhythm. If you have rhythm, then you can play or sing anything you need.”

Rhythm is essential — it is the foundation of everything musical. I’ve been concentrating on rhythm reading and notation in all of my Upper Elementary and Middle School classes this past term, and students are becoming more adept at recognizing values of notes and rests, and relating them to different time signatures. Throughout the process we have discussed the similarity of mathematics and music, which is most evident in rhythm reading.

Rhythm reading breaks down the mathematics

Musical pieces are divided into sections called measures or bars which embody an equal amount of time. Each measure is divided into equal portions called beats, which are all mathematical divisions of time.

In 4/4 time, for example, there MUST be four beats in each measure. You may use whatever notes and rests you like, but it MUST total 4 beats.

There are whole notes and whole rests which both equal 4 beats. There are half notes and half rests which equal 2 beats each. Quarter notes and quarter rests equal one beat each. A note with a dot after it lengthens the note by half. For example, a quarter note with a dot after it would be held for 3/8 of a measure, since 1/4 plus half of 1/4 = 3/8. Or, 2/8 plus 1/8 = 3/8.

This chart illustrates how rhythm changes when a whole note is divided into shorter/faster notes.

Keeping the beat and keeping it kinesthetic!

Blending auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning in music classes, and adding mathematical-logical learning to the mix, makes for a multi-faceted educational experience that speaks to all types of students — not just those considered “musical.”

The students have read rhythms, clapped them, and played them with claves and tambourines. They have created their own rhythm patterns, making sure their “math” was correct. They have come away with skills to carry with them, whether listening to music in the car on the way home from school or picking up a new instrument to play in the Inly Middle School rock band.

What felt overwhelming to the classes when we began has become a fun project and source of pride among all. It is so rewarding when the “lightbulb” goes off, and a huge smile spreads across the face of a student.

It has been proven that LISTENING to, LEARNING and PERFORMING music improves cognition and math skills because at some level, all music is math.

Meri-Lee Mafera has been teaching music at Inly School for nearly 15 years. She loves singing, teaching and directing musical theater, and feels lucky to be able to do all three at Inly. “I love my job!” she exclaims.

Meri-Lee is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, where she obtained her B.F.A. in piano and vocal performance. She completed her graduate studies at Boston University and the Guildhall School of Music in London. Some of her favorite summers have been spent performing and teaching at Tanglewood. Read her full bio 

You can learn more about the Arts at Inly here.

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