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Math - Are instrumentalists better at Math?

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

Are all musicians naturally good at Math?


Conditional Proposition logic:

If I can play 3 instruments, then I am likely to have a masters degree in Mathematics.

If I have a masters degree in Mathematics, then I can likely play 3 instruments.

Honestly, I don't know which is true but I know for certain I can play 3 instruments, and it probably played a part in my learning of Mathematics.

Math and Music - What's the relation?

Skills in Music

Let's unpack some of the skills needed to play an instrument. Let's look at the piano for example, playing it requires forming associations between melody and chords, time scales, sight reading all while performing executive functions such as hitting the correct keys. Playing the flute requires you to time your breaths with the keys you 'closed'/press on (depending on western/indian/chinese flute). It also requires you to memorise the fingerings for EACH key you play. Those who are familiar with the western flute will know that the octave of each key may have a different fingering. If you play the percussion, you would know that there are different ways to play a 4 beat song.

All instrumentalists read music scores incorporating: 3 beat, 4 beat, 6 beat, 8 beat, 16 beat and the rare 5 or 7 beat as rhythms.

Disclaimer: I am not a music expert though I play these instruments, I apologise if the explanation is unclear.

Skills in Mathematics

Learning to play a musical instrument relies on understanding concepts, such as fractions and ratios, which are key topics in mathematics.

In fact, once you play enough, you start to see patterns in the chords, the keys (major and minor) and before you realise it, you can create similar harmonics. Watch this woman explain the Major (4 +3 keys) and Minor (3 + 4 keys)

Similarly, Mathematics is mostly about finding patterns and problem solving. To do problem solving, one has to be creative. Didn't they say musicians are creative?

We start learning about patterns since Kindergarten. Then we proceed to learn patterns in the form of Ratio, Equivalent Fractions, Number patterns (duh!) and many more. When we get older, we learn about Mathematical proofs at the University level, and topics we have mastered earlier form our foundation for advanced pattern recognition.

However, Mathematics is not just about patterns. In fact, Mathematics is such a vast subject covering arithmetic, geometry, calculus, algebra and so much more.

However, Mathematics can be daunting as well. It requires more than just memorising multiplication times table. To quote my university lecturer, " You need to appreciate its beauty and try to comprehend the abstract idea." Watch us roll our eyes back then! Now my students roll their eyes at me when I say the same.

Well, my parents certainly didn't send me to any music lessons when I was young, I only joined the school band at when I was 14.

How have your music lessons affected your academic studies?

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1 Comment

Hans Kerkhofs
Hans Kerkhofs
Dec 19, 2021

Thanks for writing this article, it gives me new insights in music composition 👌

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