If kids want to get better maths marks, they should study music

Children perform better in maths when music is a central part of their education. This is the contention of a study which analysed nearly 50 years of research into the relationship between maths and music in kids.

Music can be integrated into maths lessons by getting children to clap to pieces with different rhythms when learning counting and fractions.

Another method is designing musical instruments with mathematics. Ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras (famous for his triangles) provided the mathematical basis for the modern western octave scale and the interval between two notes.

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It is believed Pythagoras was driven to study the maths behind musical pitch when he heard the different musical notes created by a hammer striking an anvil in a blacksmith’s shop.

Using a lyre and monochord (a one-stringed instrument believed to have been invented by Pythagoras), he discovered that a lyre string pressed exactly in the middle (a 2:1 ratio of string length) produced the same note, but at a higher pitch – an interval called an octave.

You can see this principle at home with bottles. We have all blown across the top of a bottle to create a ghostly, flute-like note. Half filling that bottle will yield the same note but an octave higher. Adding different amounts of water (different ratios of air to liquid) will give different notes.

(Our new columnist in Cosmos Weekly, Red Symons, a guitarist in the 70’s popular bank Skyhooks, mentions that chords on a guitar are “merely mathematical arrays.”)

Exercises such as these are thought to make maths lessons more enjoyable, keep students engaged and ease dread or anxiety surrounding studying maths. Results of the recent meta-analysis, published in Educational Studies, suggests that kids using music to learn maths are more motivated and appreciate arithmetic more.

Previous studies have shown that there is a correlation between students who perform well in music and those that excel in mathematics. But the benefits of using musical techniques in teaching maths has been less well understood.

Dr Ayça Akın, from the Department of Software Engineering at Turkey’s Antalya Belek University, analysed 55 studies published between 1975 and 2022, involving almost 78,000 students from kindergarten- to university-age.

Students were given maths tests before and after taking part and their scores compared with young people who did not participate.

Three types of musical intervention were included the meta-analysis: normal music lessons involving singing and clapping, lessons where children learn how to play instruments, and lessons in which music is integrated into maths.

In all cases, students who took music lessons performed better in their maths scores.

The greatest effect came in those students who had the integrated music-maths classes. Of these students, 73% performed significantly better than pupils who didn’t have any musical lessons. In addition, 69% of students who learned how to play instruments and 58% of students who had normal music lessons, improved more than pupils with no musical intervention.

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While the relatively small number of studies means it was not possible in the meta-analysis to examine other factors such as socio-economic background and length of musical instruction, it does highlight the large impact that music-integrated lessons can have on youngsters learning maths.

“Encouraging mathematics and music teachers to plan lessons together could help ease students’ anxiety about mathematics, while also boosting achievement,” Akin says.

As a maths-minded music theory nerd, this is music to my ears!

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