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Music and mathematics have traditionally inhabited different worlds in our mind space. Music is associated with the ‘arts stream’ – relaxing and good to pursue as a hobby while math is pure science – associated with intelligence, analytical skills, and financial success.

Therefore, in our education system, math is a core and compulsory subject from get-go and music is extracurricular – an option. Some children might decide to learn music and others might not, but everybody has to do math until the 10th grade.

What if I were to say that research is now suggesting that music and mathematics are closely related in our brain from very early in life, causing the pursuit of one to positively impact the other? In fact, it is being proven by neuroscientists that when we listen to music, different areas of our brain become engaged.

More importantly when we play an instrument, the entire brain lights up and becomes active in a way that no other activity is able to do. Several studies show that when children pick up learning an instrument at a young age, it helps with their cognitive development.

“The link between the physical practice of music and strong mathematical abilities are demonstrated in studies that show that children who play a musical instrument can perform more complex arithmetical operations than those who do not play an instrument” – according to Neurological Research, 1997.

Studies have found that when a child learns to play a musical instrument, not only do they get good at creating melodies and tunes, but they also become better at:

  • Pattern recognition
  • Listening and language acquisition
  • Stronger memory
  • Higher motor skills
  • Understanding emotions in the voice and
  • Handling multiple tasks simultaneously

“Ani Patel, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and the author of Music, Language, and the Brain says that while listening to music can be relaxing and contemplative, the idea that simply plugging in your iPod is going to make you more intelligent doesn’t quite hold up to scientific scrutiny.” (George Hicks, 2014)

However, when we play even a small musical piece, many different parts of our brain become actively involved – our auditory system, because we need to be able to listen to what we and others are playing; the motor system to be able to manoeuvre the keys or the strings as the case may be; the emotional system to gauge the reaction of the audience and the executive function system to focus on the performance.

This combined with the discipline required to practice supports different skills simultaneously, resulting in developing multiple neural connections in our brains.

Many of these are also skills that support the development of the mathematical ability of our brain. For instance, music-learning involves appreciating the length of notes in proportion to others so when a child plays music she exercises the part of her brain that processes proportional thinking.

Another example is spatial-temporal reasoning – the ability to see disassembled parts and mentally putting them back together. This kind of reasoning is required for mathematical problem-solving.

Overall, the visual and spatial skills that a child exercises every time he or she practices an instrument and plays music strengthen his/her mental-physical connection.

This has significant implications for introducing music to children from the very early years at home and in schools. What we have known for a while is the fact that music makes learners more engaged and responsive in the school environment by creating a positive emotional climate for learning. This is a huge reason in itself to make music an integral part of the curriculum.

However, the new findings which show a close connection between music and mathematics and the ability of children to pick up both simultaneously make it important for us as parents and educators to take music as seriously as English, math or science.

In an increasingly right-brained world, music and art seem to have lost their value in the educational system. For all those parents out there, who want to introduce a fun element into the daily lives of their children, while getting them to also exercise the right side of their brain, music is definitely the way to go.

Who knew music and mathematics had such a close connection? To all the parents reading this, I strongly recommend letting your little one indulge in both music and mathematics freely.

Pooja Goyal

Pooja is an acclaimed educator working to transform early childhood education through application of neuroscience research to learning in the early years. She is the founder of Intellitots Learning (acquired by Founding Years) which is known for its ground breaking work in the field of early childhood education and care. Pooja is an angel investor and a mentor to many start ups, business leaders and educators.