Susan Courey, PhD
Department Chair, Early Childhood Special Education
Graduate School of Education, Touro College
As a teacher and researcher, I have been examining the relationship between music and mathematics in school age children. In a small private school in San Francisco, a music teacher would often come to my classroom to pick up a student for a private lesson during math class. Only in private school would this happen! One day he was watching me teach my third-graders about fractions and he tried to explain how his music students understood fractions. “Clearly they didn’t”, I shot back, “because they are doing terribly on tests!” He laughed and hurried out of the room to deliver his lesson. I just shook my head and laughed to myself.
After school that day, Endre, the music teacher, came to my classroom to further explain why and how his music students understood fractions. Endre drew a staff with a few measures on the board. He described how in 4/4 time, the whole note is equal to four counts, the half note is equal to 2 counts, the quarter note is equal to 1 count and the eighth, usually appearing as twins, each equal ½ of a count. Endre teaches his students about rhythm in 4/4 time by having them examine measures of music and counting the beats to ensure each measure has four beats. It was beginning to make sense to me.
Endre and I developed a 12-lesson music intervention to help third-grade students understand fraction concepts. It was a success in a very diverse classroom where 50% of the students were English Language learners. In addition to learning fractions, the students also learned about rhythm and music notation.
It’s been well over ten years since Endre and I first stumbled on the idea of using music to help students understand mathematics. Currently, we are working with kindergarten students with disabilities. Rather than fractions, we are teaching our young students about counting and whole numbers. If I wasn’t in the class myself, I don’t think I would believe the progress these little musicians are making. In a recent lesson, I watched a non-verbal student, who I wasn’t sure was learning the value of each note, correctly clap out the value of each note. Most recently, I watched another non-verbal student correctly drum out measures of music. Not only are these young children learning about math and music, they are engaged, having fun and succeeding in every class. We really need more music in all classrooms!
We can bring music into our university classrooms to more fully engage all students. As editor of Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning, Edward B. Fiske, argues that the arts, when well taught, “provide young people with authentic learning experiences that engage their minds, hearts, and bodies.” Music has been a feature of every known human society and scientists have never found a culture in the course of human history that has not had music. Some scientists believe that music predates language. Pythagoras used music to heal different psychological and physical ailments. Because music is a part of every culture, we can find many ways to incorporate Music across the university curriculum. Think of all the students we can more fully engage with the power and beauty of music.