The Unlikely Connections Between Maths & Music

Music and maths. They’re not often talked about in the same breath.

One’s an art, the other’s a science. One is known for its creative expression, the other has a reputation that’s anything but that. Chalk and cheese.

But, are they so different?

By searching for similarities between these two areas that seem so very, very different, we can uncover some fascinating ideas about maths…

A question about maths & music that brought extraordinary responses

Check out this Venn Diagram. What would you put in the middle?

Venn Diagram of Maths and Music

After asking this question on Facebook & Twitter, I received an extraordinary range of responses. Let me share some of my favourites with you-

(First though: What would YOU put in the middle?)

Twitter comment by Anna Beinke @annabeinke  Joy. Rhythm. Pattern. Exploration.
Twitter comment by Dr Flavia Santos @flavinska72  poetically: love
scientifically: cognition
Facebook comment by Carly Millichap  I want to articulate that they have an identifiable 'language' to describe the world, but in a succinct way!
(I reckon Carly did a pretty good job of articulating her thinking.)
Twitter reply by Atul Rana @atulrana  I like to think of music as the sound of maths! Maths is about patterns, music is the sound of patterns. The Pythagorean "number is all" obsession created the first Western musical scale. Continuous pitch became a discrete scale of notes, changing music composition forever.
See what Atul did to my Venn Diagram?!
Twitter reply by Anna @WillsAnnaE Up until the middle ages, the music circle was fully inside the maths circle - music was one of the four branches of math ("the quadrivium"). Arithmetic: number in abstract Geometry: number in space Music: number in time Astronomy: number in space and time
Anna's comment blew me away. I now want to know more about the quadrivium.

So, if maths is like music – is it actually an art?

In many responses, people shared how they see maths as creative, beautiful and joyful – the sorts of things you would associate with artistic expression.

So, what’s going on?

One of my favourite writers on this topic, Paul Lockhart, sums up the situation perfectly:

“The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art.

The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such.

Everyone understands that poets, painters, and musicians create works of art, and are expressing themselves in word, image, and sound. In fact, our society is rather generous when it comes to creative expression; architects, chefs, and even television directors are considered to be working artists. So why not mathematicians?”

I want to leave you with a couple of questions to think about-

  • If we were to treat maths more like an art, what would you expect to see in the classroom?
  • What might be the implications for learners?

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