Music, Math and Brain Development

Here's your nightly math! Just 5 quick minutes of number fun for kids and parents at home. Read a cool fun fact, followed by math riddles at different levels so everyone can jump in. Your kids will love you for it.

Music, Math and Brain Development

September 10, 2013

In “Toe tapping math” we were introduced to the notion that music is math.  We can find math in intervals, measures, steps, beats and rhythms. In fact, music without math would probably just be noise. But what if we flip that around – is math music? What connects the two in our brains?

When my children were just babies many parents had fallen head-over-heels in love with “Baby Mozart,” my husband and me included. Although studies disproved any measurable difference in the IQs of children who watched and listened to the colorful video and accompanying Sonata in D Major I stubbornly held on to a belief that this beautiful, captivating music had to stimulate some beneficial region in the infant brain.

Several years later, in 2000, I stumbled across a Frontline segment that had me thinking again about how our brains are wired and how parents can best support child development. In it, Dr. Jay Giegg at the National Institute of Mental Health hypothesized that: the growth in gray matter followed by the pruning of connections is a particularly important stage of brain development in which what teens do or do not do can affect them for the rest of their lives. He calls this the “use it or lose it principle,” and tells FRONTLINE, “If a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive. The rest of the cells are “pruned away.”

I reasoned then that if any gray matter were going to be shaved away in my teen children’s brains I would vastly prefer that it not be the part responsible for reasoning and working memory. There had to be a way to keep the brain engaged in learning pathways that would hardwire cells and connections in spite of any perceived lack of appropriate academic rigor (or hours whiled away lying on the couch playing video games.)

I convinced myself that music was the answer.

By 2006 the first evidence linking musical training to brain development was published. Then, in 2008 Harvard University’s Dr. Elizabeth Spelke published Effects of Music Instruction on Developing Cognitive Systems at the Foundations of Math and Science . The study showed that indeed there is evidence for an association between music and geometry.

So the next time you are toe tapping rhythms with your little ones remember that there is a proven positive connection in the brain between music and math. Engaging children in musical activities that they already love can have a long-lasting influence on the brain connections and cells that are self-selected to thrive.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author

Jeanne Bernish

Jeanne is an experienced mom who considers herself a "math-not," but has raised two math-loving teenagers. She works in the ed-tech sector and blogs now and then at Race to the Middle.

More posts from this author - Website