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Music and Maths – Isabelle Greco

Have you ever been asked if you’re a ‘maths person’, an ‘artsy person’ or a ‘sporty person’? For me, those questions always seem a bit odd. Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but I always hear the implication that we can only be one ‘type of person’ at a time; that by liking music/art/dance, there’s no way for you to also appreciate maths/science/technology. 

As someone who likes both maths and music, I noticed that these areas, as different as they may seem, are actually more interconnected than you might think.

Firstly, there are some pretty cool links between music and maths since many aspects of music can actually be described mathematically! For example, when we hear music, we’re essentially hearing sine waves – a type of mathematical function, and something very well studied by physicists! In fact, studying music mathematically is what led to our understanding of why different instruments sound the way they do (or for musicians, how different timbres are produced). Furthermore, intervals in music which sound nice (like octaves and fifths) again can be characterised by appealing ratios of sine waves (1:2 and 3:2 respectively). Study of this type dates back to Pythagoras (around 530 BCE), who was the quintessential lover of both music and mathematics (he really hated beans though, he was an interesting guy!). And, the tuning system that we use to keep orchestras sounding cohesive, actually involves the twelfth root of two!. To learn more about this type of math (and double check the facts I’ve quoted), I recommend Saloni Shah’s project.

Interestingly, I’ve also noted that more people than you’d expect who study maths and maths-related subjects at university also play an instrument. This isn’t just anecdotal; an analysis of the Nobel prize winners for science found that these individuals were significantly more likely than the average person to pursue artistic endeavours outside of their STEM interests. In fact, Nobel prize winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or crafty hobby . There is also significant research indicating that playing and listening to music activates the same area of the brain that helps us solve mathematical problems. For me, I’ve found that the same skills that I need when playing music also help me with maths! Being diligent about practice has trained me to be persistent when solving a maths problem. Similarly, mathematical analysis has trained me to think critically about what I play and how I play it. I could go on, but for me, the link between the two skill sets seems entirely natural.

If the link between mathematics and music is so natural, why are we so determined to keep them separate? There isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question, but I think there are at least two key issues. Firstly, the average person doesn’t really know what ‘being a mathematician’ or ‘doing mathematics’ involves. But, they do know it doesn’t involve getting up on a stage and playing music, so from the outside it seems like these are two very separate skills. More broadly however, I think this stems (pun intended) from our need as humans to categorise things. Our brains are hardwired to look for patterns and divide things into boxes, and we do the same with music and maths.  Unfortunately, this means we separate two subjects which are far more closely intertwined than they might seem.

Whether your passions involve music, maths, ballet, biology, sculpture, or science, know that any combination of them is absolutely valid. And not only that – it’s your superpower, giving you a lens on those pursuits that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t pursue your unique combination of them. And as for what kind of ‘person’ you are – definitely an awesome one, if I’m not mistaken!

About Isabelle: Isabelle is lucky enough to be studying maths and French; two subjects that she absolutely loves. When she’s not thinking about French maths, you can find her rereading Harry Potter, fighting for equality, or soaking up some sunshine.