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## Want to Get Better at Math? Play the Piano

Do you wish your math skills were better? Or that your child didn’t struggle with basic arithmetic skills? Maybe what you need (with a competent tutor) is a piano. Or a guitar. Or maybe a clarinet and percussion. The key to understanding math, it seems, lies in the ability to understand how numbers relate to each other, and nothing demonstrates this better than music.

For starters, the music keeps a rhythm. The rhythm depends on something called a *time signature* which designates the number of beats per measure (in mathematics this would be called a unit) It also determines the type of note that will be assigned to a beat. And, he expresses that as a fraction. For example, a common time signature is 4/4 time. The top number tells you that there are four beats in a measure (a unit of music), and the bottom number, the other 4, tells you that the quarter note gets a beat. From the point of view of fractions, in 4/4 the quarter note represents 1/4 of the measure. In other words, it takes four 1/4 or four quarter notes to make up a whole measure.

And then there are the notes themselves. Two quarter notes (two ¼) are equivalent to what is called a half note (1/2). In other words, 2/4 = 1/2. It also takes 4 quarter notes to equal a round… Or, in other words, 4/4=1.

This is just the beginning. The amount of math in music is endless. What makes it so conducive to improving the ability to do simple arithmetic or handle complicated mathematical proofs is that when you play music you are actually performing mathematical calculations with every beat of the way. And, it’s done in such a multi-sensory way that the math isn’t just seen, it’s felt, heard and, in many cases, loved. It becomes part of you. Music and math are perpetual dance partners who together achieve dazzling feats. While the musician’s fingers fly over the keyboard of a piano or pluck the strings of a guitar creating beautiful melodies, the math – the conductor – orchestrates it all silently and almost invisibly.

So how do we know that being a musician makes you better at math? Logic would tell us that it is probably *should. * The evidence that it does, however, is supported by more than just logic. In a study conducted by San Francisco State University, it was found that students who took music-based math courses “scored 50% higher on a fractions test, taken at the end of study, compared to students in the regular mathematics course”. (SF State News, 2012)

Augusta State University researchers Joyce Cheek and Lyle Smith have gone a step further. They compared the ITBS (i.e. Iowa Test of Basic Skills) scores of students who had received group music lessons with those who had received private lessons. They found that “students who took private lessons for two or more years scored significantly higher on the composite math portion of the ITBS than students who did not take private lessons.” (Cheek & Smith, 1998) And the instrument that surpassed them all? The piano.

But do you really have to play an instrument to enjoy the benefits of music? Apparently not. The ability to perform mathematical calculations can improve simply by *listen* to the music while you do them. In other words, if it is music without words. This is commonly called *The Mozart Effect*and it has inspired some teachers to regularly use background classical music in the classroom.

As a tutor, I have learned through observation and experimentation that soft, unobtrusive music is a great aid in helping students focus and concentrate. This is perhaps accomplished by the phenomenon known as *brain training* in which the brain waves synchronize with the external energy patterns. Or maybe it’s just that relaxing music can melt away anxiety – the absolute kiss of death when it comes to staying focused.

Although how and why it works is still a bit of a mystery, the fact is that it works. Music turns out to be the magic element that helps students improve their performance in almost every subject, including the most daunting of all maths. For this reason, you will always find a little Bach or Beethoven or Mozart drifting through the air in my classroom at Avalon Learning Center. Personally, I consider these legendary composers valuable and valued partners in my mission to guide every student to success. So far, they’re doing a great job… and posthumously at that!

San Francisco State University. Special education. SF State News (University Communications). Getting into the rhythm helps children grasp fractions. Academic Communications, December 22, 2012. Web. December 20, 2015, < http://www.sfsu.edu/~news/prsrelea/fy12/031.html >.

United States. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Musical training and math success of ninth graders. By Joyce M. Cheek and Lyle R. Smith. Columbus: Educational Resource Information Center, 1998. ERIC [EBSCO]. The Web. December 20, 2015,

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