Mozart & Maths: Friends or Foes?

It might seem strange to think that music and maths have a close relationship… one consists of formulae and fractions and the other contains flats and sharps. But in fact, Einstein used to sit and play music when he was stuck on a mathematical problem.

By concentrating on reading the music (using his left brain) and playing the right notes (right brain), he was able to strengthen the communication between the two hemispheres of his brain and increase his brainpower. Among his favourite composers were Bach and Mozart, who both included intricate structures and symmetries in their music. As Salieri explained in the musical Amadeus about Mozart’s music: “displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”

What’s numerical about an F#?

Music is divided into sections called measures, and each measure has the same number of beats. All music notes are equal to a number of beats – such as a semibreve which is worth 4, a minim which is worth 2, a crotchet which is worth 1, and so on.

On top of this, each piece of music has a time signature which gives its rhythmic information, like how many beats there are in each measure (time signature). This then changes the way the notes’ numerical values are played! It all sounds rather confusing, but the bottom line is that as a musician, it is important to understand the value of fractions and notes in order to play the music correctly.

At some level, music is maths.

Patterns are also extremely common in both maths and music, and by learning one, we can become better at spotting patterns in the other. Music has repeating phrases, verses and choruses, while maths uses patterns to explain the unknown. Looking again at Bach’s music, his famous tune Prelude in C Major has a specific harmonic pattern to it, shown wonderfully in this visualisation of the three-minute piece.

Can playing a musical instrument help us be better at maths?

There does seem to be a connection between the mental gymnastics done by a mathematician and a musician, and research shows that when children are given proper instructions on musical instruments, they score highly on tasks that require spatial-temporal cognition, maths and hand-eye coordination.

In addition, practising music, paying attention to detail and the discipline that is required to excel at an instrument, is a strong base for building maths skills.

However, while there are many musicians who didn’t make it past algebra at school, there are certainly many mathematicians who cannot play a tune to save their life. It would be bold to claim any kind of innate link between mathematical ability and musical ability, but the two disciplines clearly have a deep commonality.

Some universities such as Edinburgh and Birmingham even offer a BA in Maths and Music.

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