Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Boden from IL. Boden Wonders, “How does music help you with math?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Boden!
Have you ever noticed that some songs start with a “one, two, three, four”? You can hear it in songs by artists as different as The Beatles, OutKast, and Taylor Swift. But why are they counting? The counting you hear is a small clue to a big fact—math is behind almost everything in music! How can that be? Let’s WONDER together!
First, let’s start with “counting in.” Musicians will often count (aloud or in their heads) to make sure that they all start the song at the same time. Once they start together, everyone has to stay on the same beat. Every song has a steady beat, like the beat of a drum. Some songs have a faster or slower beat than others. This is called the tempo. It comes from the Latin word for time, “tempus”. The tempo tells us how fast or slow a song is. One of the first ways that young children can start to learn math ideas is by learning how to make a steady beat!
A steady beat is one kind of pattern. Other patterns in music relate to math, too. We can see patterns in how far apart notes are from each other. Notes are how we write, or think about, sounds in music. Sometimes we play more than one note at a time. These are called chords. Certain notes sound better when played at the same time. That is because they are special distances apart!
We can also string notes together to make songs. Songs create patterns with notes. Many songs repeat the same pattern of notes over and over. Think of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” for example. Other songs will change the pattern just a little each time.
Musicians also need numbers to understand how to play music. If you look at written music, you will see two numbers on the left side of each set of lines. Often, the numbers are 4/4. This is called the time signature. The top number in the time signature tells the musician how many beats are in each measure, or part, of the line of music. The second number tells us what type of note gets one beat. The “4” on the bottom lets us know that a quarter note gets one beat.
And that brings us to fractions! Notes are organized by length. For example, in 4/4 time, a note that sounds for four beats is a whole note. A note that sounds for two beats is a half note. A note that sounds for just one beat is a quarter, or ¼ note. There are smaller notes, too! You can have eighth notes (⅛) and even sixteenth notes (1/16). If a kid already knows how to play music, it will make it easier for them to learn fractions in school. If they play music, they already understand fractions!
It would make sense that learning music could help you with math, or knowing math could help you get better at music. The science isn’t clear, though. Students who play an instrument tend to do better on math tests than those who do not. But scientists have not proven why that is. It could be because knowing music helps students learn math better. But it could also be that students who play an instrument go to schools that teach math very well. Or it could be that they have families who help them with school a lot. It could be that some students are naturally good at both math and music because they use similar parts of the brain!
It is clear that music is good for our brains, whether or not it makes us better at math. Playing music uses several parts of your brain at the same time. Musicians need to use their brains to see the music, hear the notes, and touch the instrument in just the right ways to make sounds. And their brains have to organize all that information very quickly! Learning music is great exercise for our brains.
Music might help you with math. Math might help you with music. But whether or not they do, we can have fun learning both! What instrument would you like to play for your brain exercise today?
Standards: CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.4, CCRA.L.5, CCRA.L.6, NCAS.CR.1, NCAS.CR.2, SMP.7, NGSS.PS4.A