The Correlation Between Music and Math: A Neurobiology Perspective
The Correlation Between Music and Math: A Neurobiology Perspective
I remember the first time I heard the statement "Did you know that listening to classical music enhances your mathematical abilities?" I was both intrigued and excited, intrigued because I did not understand how music and math, two seemingly unrelated subject could possibly affect each other. I was also excited because I began to view classical music as some kind of magical potion that would transform my math skills from decent to extraordinary. When I had the opportunity to write this web paper, I immediately jumped into the topic of music and math. The questions that I wish to answer throughout this paper are; does listening to music really help you do better in math? If so, which part of the brain is controlling the correlation between math and music? In addition, how does music stimulate the brain in a way that enhances mathematical abilities?
It turns out that there is much evidence that supports the positive effects of music on one's ability to do math. Most research shows that when children are trained in music at a young age, they tend to improve in their math skills. The surprising thing in this research is not that music as a whole is enhancing math skills. It is certain aspects of music that are affecting mathematics ability in a big way. Studies done mostly in children of young age show that their academic performance increases after a certain period of music education and training. One particular study published in the journal 'Nature' showed that when groups of first graders were given music instruction that emphasized sequential skill development and musical games involving rhythmn and pitch, after six months, the students scored significantly better in math than students in groups that received traditional music instruction. (1)
The result of this study posed another important question. How does
this type of music that emphasized sequential skills, rhythmn and pitch
manage to improve children's ability to do math? It turned out that
there are two distinguished types of reasoning, spatial temporal (ST)
reasoning and Language analytical (LA) reasoning. LA reasoning would be
involved in solving equations and obtaining a quantitative result. ST
reasoning would be is utilized in activities like chess when one needs
to think ahead several moves. The effect of music on math sometimes
termed the Mozart effect. The Mozart effect gain its name after the
discovery that listening to Mozart's compositions, which is very
sequential, produces a short-termed enhancement of spatial-temporal
reasoning. Some key reasoning features used in spatial temporal
1. The transformation and relating of mental images in space and time
2. Symmetries of the inherent cortical firing patterns used to compare physical and mental images and
3. Natural temporal sequences of those inherent cortical patterns (3).
The same people who conducted the Mozart effect experiment also suggested that spatial-temporal reasoning is crucial in math. The areas of math that require ST reasoning are geometry and certain aspects of calculus, which require transformations of images in space and time. In higher mathematics, the ability to write mathematical proofs is also associated with ST reasoning because proof writing is a task that requires intuitive sense of natural sequences and the ability to think ahead several steps.
As to the question, what part of the brain controls the correlation between math and music, there are also many resources that provide answers. Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, found that certain regions of the brain such as the corpus callosum and the right motor cortex, were larger in musician who started their musical training before the age of 7 (2). As to what happens in that area of the brain when one listens to music, we turn to the experiment performed by Xiaodeng Leng and Gordon Shaw. Gordon and Leng developed a model of higher brain function, which is based on the trion model. The trion model is a highly structured mathematical realization of the Mountcastle organization principle, with the column as the basic neuronal network in mammalian cortex. The column comprises minicolumns called trions. One particular columnar network of trions has a large repertoire of spatial-temporal firing patterns, which can be excited and used in memory and higher brain functions (3). Shaw and Leng performed an experiment in which they mapped the trion model of firing patterns in that particular column onto various pitches and instruments producing recognizable styles of music. This mapping of the trions gaves insight to relate the neuronal processes involved in music and abstract spatial-temporal reasoning (3). It shows that the part of the cortex, which contains the repertoire of spatial-temporal firing patterns, can be excited by music and is utilized in higher brain functions such as spatial-temporal thinking in mathematics.
In conclusion, my research into math and music does seem to suggest that music enhances mathematics skills. Music targets one specific area of the brain to stimulate the use of spatial-temporal reasoning, which is useful in mathematical thinking. However, as to the question of whether or not music is the magical portion that will elevate anyone's ability to do math, the answer unfortunately . . .would be no. Just because most mathematicians are fond of music, dosen't mean that all musicians are fond of mathematics. I found a letter posted on the web written by a fourteen-year-old overachiever to a mathematics professor. The student expresses his fraustration that even though he is an excellent musician, math is one of his weakest subjects. In math, he is not making the grades that he needs to stay in a certain prestigious academic program (4).
This letter seems to suggest that listening to music, or being able to master a musical instrument does not automatically guarantee that one can perform well in math. In other words, there are many musicians who are good in music but not in math. Music is a lot more than notes conforming to mathematical patterns and formulas. Music is exhilarating because of the intricacies of the patterns that occurs. Whether or not these patterns resemble math has no relevance to many musicians. More often than not, musicians are inclined to practice music because of the wonders and awe that they feel for music even if they are not aware of the math that is in music.
Comments made prior to 2007
Are you basing your conclusion on a letter written by a fourteen year old student? If someone has low math skills there are many factors that could lead to that. There aren't any studies that I've seen stating that the study of music will raise math scores or create a situation where a student will excel in mathematics. The studies will show that the study of music will enhance the brain function and thought processes involved in mathematics and scientific thinking. A result COULD be increases functionality in mathematics. Whether a student is aware of this or not is irrelevant. A student doesn't have to be aware of learning for learning to take place ... Aron, 24 January 2007