Monday, October 20, 2008

Mathematics and Music

Mathematics and Music: A Search for Insight into Higher Brain Function By Wendy S. Boettcher, Sabrina S. Hahn and Gordon L. Shaw
From the Leonard Music Journal, Vol. 4, pp 53-58, 1994
Located on Jstor
Posted by Justine

This article discusses the very interesting topic of the relationship between music, mathematics and chess. The authors present the results of detailed interviews with 14 professors of mathematics concerning their research and possible relationships between mathematics and music. They conclude that the underlying basis for higher brain functions involving mathematics, music and chess is abstract (spatio-temporal) firing –pattern development by groups of neurons over large regions of the cortex for some tens of seconds. They propose some new experiments to be done in the future. The authors discuss some other research that has been done with Mozart’s music compared to relaxation tapes and silence. The results showed that listening to Mozart’s music enhances for a short time performance on the abstract/spatial-reasoning test of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale by some 8 to 9 points as compared to the other two listening conditions. Other studies have showed only low correlations between mathematical skills and musical skills in children. Results vary by age, gender and types of music and degree of mathematics studied.

This topic is one that has been discussed for centuries and one that has intrigued many minds. I too find this topic very fascinating mostly because I struggled to learn mathematics as a child but yet have a natural disposition for music. Ever since I heard that there is a relationship between math and music I have been wondering how it could be and why I never really understood math like I do music. It seems to me as though there is a relationship between music theory and math and again I am neither interested nor good at music theory. This tells me that there must be some relationship between the two skills. I have known many musicians who say they love math and who also really like theory. These musicians are mostly pianists and rarely have I met a singer who enjoys theory and or is good at it. This article doesn’t really suggest that studying math makes you a better musician or vice versa but it does suggest that perhaps listening to music can improve your math skills. I think listening to music can improve your mind as a whole, meaning it can be used to improve anything difficult that takes a lot of concentration and not just math. Another idea from the authors is that if you listen to music while doing math it may interfere with math because the same cognitive processes are used in both musical and mathematical cognition. I suppose this could be true but again listening to music can also interfere with anything we do that requires thinking such as reading and writing. Referring to the study of the music of Mozart versus the relaxation music and silence, I am interested to understand why Mozart’s music is so much more stimulating? Is it the light heartedness of his music or the complexity of it? Why is there not a Bach or Beethoven effect? As for chess and music I can see how they relate because of the pattern development they both require. Our brains find patterns in music without us even knowing it, which means music can definitely be used as a tool for helping our minds find patterns in games such as chess.

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