Creative Connections: Music is Math and Literacy

As long as politicians are the ones making decisions about school goals and resources, we as music educators must make connections to math and literacy to keep music relevant in the lives of our students.  Furthermore, it is no longer enough to advocate for music without pointing out its resulting benefits to skills and abilities in the core subject areas.  We as music educators know the intrinsic value of music as its own subject, but for its survival in the classroom and in modern education tying it to core curricular areas gives administrators and politicians the ammunition that they need to be able to “sell it” to the taxpayers.  This means we have to know our students’ strengths and how to connect things students already know to new ideas.  The key to this lies in working closely with both core curricular and arts education colleagues to create a learning community in which all subjects complement and support one another by scaffolding student learning.

Music and math are closely connected in a variety of ways that were recognized as far back as the Ancient Greeks.  This is reflected even in the names of modern musical terms.  For instance, the major scale is often referred to as the Ionian Mode in many music theory texts.  The Greeks recognized the mathematical patterns in music from the most basic melodies to the complex patterns found in the connection of key centers.  The Circle of Fifths, for instance, is connected in such a mathematically perfect fashion that it is difficult to fathom its creation.  It is also interesting to note that many school districts begin teaching instruments in fourth or fifth grade, once students have begun learning about fractions in their math class.  Division of whole notes into half, quarter, eighth notes and so on; is just one simple means for getting the conversation of the math-music connection started.  Once the rhythmic notation conversation begins it quickly moves from the basic to complex applications, such as syncopation, cut time, and the use of dotted rhythms.  Many administrators attempt to save on resources by delaying beginning band instruction into later Middle School, and even Junior High.  The counter-argument that music supports elementary and early middle school math concepts such as fractions gives Administrators to reflect on the universal educational benefits of both Elementary Band and Elementary General Music programs.

Just as music and math work together hand-in-hand, music can be crucial in helping students develop literacy skills.  Music is often described as “the universal language”.  Just as we learn to read by associating sounds with groupings of increasingly complex strings of letters into words, sentences, and paragraphs, learning to read music notation progresses in a similar fashion.  The visual learning skills involved in deciphering music notation translate in both Elementary Reading and Secondary English classrooms.  Additionally, it is important that students can express themselves verbally and on paper utilizing music vocabulary.  Students should be able to carry on a verbal or written conversation about musical ideas, describing elements of music such as dynamics, tone quality, balance and blend, and personal aesthetic taste.  This is a skill, which expands their overall language vocabulary and literacy skills.  These benefits are not always obvious to administrators and politicians, which is why music educators must help them draw these connections.

In an ideal world teachers would sit down together regularly and plan out what topics they would discuss, so that all learning would be connected for a more comprehensive student experience.  All to often subjects are taught in a vacuum where students can’t see past the classroom door.  When teachers think cross-curricularly they create connections between many different subject areas.  The key is that the learning takes place.  So if the goal is for the student to learn the concept, then it shouldn’t matter whether it “clicked” for the student in a math, science, art or music classroom, but only that they got it and understand it.  Not all students learn the same way, so giving them multiple platforms for comprehension provides a more rich and full learning environment; catering to many different learning styles.

The connections between music and core curriculum subjects like math and literacy are real, and when music educators develop and explore them in their classroom they accomplish multiple goals.  They give their students a more well rounded musical experience and overall educational experience.  Additionally, cross-curriculum teaching helps politicians and administrators justify the equally important and intrinsic value of musically educated students.

Check out these sites that support Music and Math/Literacy:

The National Association of Music Education:

Learning Through the Arts-




1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Stephanie K.
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 04:43:12

    I just took an elective last semester on the topic of integrating the arts across the curriculum. As a music educator, it challenged me to do the opposite. I began searching to find ways to integrate core subjects into my music curriculum. While I totally agree that it is beneficial and favorable of music educators to find ways to integrate math and literacy into the music curriculum, I believe that we benefit our students even more by integrating as many subjects as possible in the music classroom. I am in complete agreement with Amy’s statement that “it is no longer enough to advocate for music without pointing out its resulting benefits to skills and abilities in the core subject areas.” In my opinion, it is not really that hard to make connections between music and other subject areas.

    Amy made some great connections between music and math. Because math is (or at least should be) so easily visible in music, I definitely agree that band (instrumental music) and general music classes should begin as early as possible in a child’s education. Literacy skills are needed in every subject area, so we only make them stronger when we choose to use them in our music classrooms. Music journaling is one simple way of doing this.

    Last semester, I planned a music lesson for Earth Day that could double as a science lesson. One Illinois standard for science states that students should be able to “demonstrate ways to reduce, reuse and recycle materials (IL.13.B.1e).” The lesson plan I created required students to bring in a previously used container of some sort from home. We filled the containers with “jingles” (beans, rice, coins, etc.), and each student then had a reused/recycled rhythm instrument. Since this was a lesson in celebration of Earth Day, I also fulfilled the Illinois Fine Arts standard “identify how the arts contribute to communication, celebrations, occupations and recreation (IL.27.A.1b).”
    Here are two other science standards that would work with this lesson:
    IL.11.B.1b = Design a device that will be useful in solving the problem.
    IL.11.B.1c = Build the device using the materials and tools provided.

    The connections between music and other subjects do exist; we just have to find them and make use of them. To start simply, you can sing a song about anything. Ask your students what concept or formula they are struggling with in a core class. Then, help them or have them write a song or rap that helps them learn, memorize, or simply remember it. You can even use tunes that already exist and are familiar to the students, such as “Bingo” or “Twinkle, Twinkle.”

    It basically comes down to this: If you are looking for ways to endorse your music program in the eyes of your stakeholders, find ways to integrate core subjects into your music classroom.


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