Is There Really A Link Between Math Skills And Musical Skills?

It’s an idea that’s become so widespread as to be repeated as gospel – people who are good at math also tend to be good at music. Most of us know someone who fits the stereotype. Maybe it was a kid at school who got top marks in math class and could rattle off a Mozart piano sonata at the drop of a hat. Maybe it was your deskmate from orchestra who went on to become a rocket scientist. But how much truth is there in it, really?

Why do we believe there’s a connection between music and math skills?

There are plenty of examples of high-profile musicians with a mathematical background, and a good few famous scientists who’ve moonlighted as composers or instrumentalists. 

Take Queen’s lead guitarist Sir Brian May, who has more recently been in the news thanks to his work as an astrophysicist, helping map the anatomy of the most dangerous asteroid we know about. Another familiar face in the astrophysics world is Professor Brian Cox, but did you know he once played the keyboard for 90s band D:Ream?

In the classical world, we have influential composer Philip Glass, who studied math and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Then there’s pioneering astronomer and discoverer of Uranus William Herschel, who also managed to find time to compose a large catalog of musical works for a variety of instruments. 

And, perhaps the doyen of them all: Pythagoras himself. Although best known for the famous theorem that sent you to sleep at school (something something triangles?) and his slightly eccentric beliefs about beans, the so-called “father of numbers” also made some of the first great strides in understanding the fundamentals of harmony that still apply in Western musical composition today. 

But though the famous examples might catch our attention, there is such a thing as confirmation bias. For every polymath (no pun intended) out there, there’ll be scores of mathematicians who can’t tell a piccolo from a viola, and loads of musicians who’d be lost without their smartphone calculators.

There’s no denying the idea has stuck, though, and it could be partially because – as old Pythag’ noted – music and math themselves are connected in fundamental ways. 

“The two have a surprising amount in common,” Dr Ayça Akn, a researcher from the Department of Software Engineering at Antalya Belek University in Turkey, told IFLScience.

“Think about symbols and symmetry. Both subjects also require abstract thinking and quantitative reasoning. Arithmetic lends itself particularly well to being taught through music since fractions and ratios are also fundamental to music.”

“Mathematics is all about numbers and fractions. If you replace those numbers with notes, rhythm and tempos, you get music.”


Some higher education institutes allow students with twin passions for music and math to capitalize on this by following a joint study course in both disciplines. Prestigious science and medicine university Imperial College London offers a 4-year joint bachelor’s program in physics and music performance, together with the neighboring Royal College of Music. The University of Edinburgh offers Mathematics and Music as a bachelor’s degree course, which focuses on theoretical and cultural aspects of music alongside the math courses. 

All this notwithstanding, it’s fair to say that, for most of us, any music education we received was pretty far removed from our mathematical education. But could we be missing a trick there? Might combining these two seemingly diverse subjects be beneficial for the next generation of kids? 

Luckily for us, there’s some fascinating research already going on in this area, and we were able to speak to Dr Akn about a recent study she carried out, aiming to answer just these kinds of questions. 

Should music and math education be combined?

In this research, Dr Akn set out on a hunt through half a century’s worth of scientific literature. She was interested in finding out whether there was any evidence that teaching music to young children could help them develop their math skills, so she sifted through papers published between 1975 and 2022.

“Math is not easy for every child,” Dr Akn told IFLScience. “Recent scores in mathematics among the students of the developed countries are at their lowest in decades, prompting concern from parents, educators and authorities.”

There are no easy answers to this problem, but Dr Akn was interested in the growing body of interdisciplinary research within education. 

“Although math and music are treated as two distant subjects in schools, I see math and music as two disciplines that are close to each other,” she explained. 

From her search of the literature, she identified 55 studies for further analysis, containing data from almost 78,000 students of all ages, from kindergarten to university.

“I analyzed three different music interventions,” she told IFLScience. “The first concerned general music intervention, where children learn to sing and listen to music […] In the second intervention, children learned to play a musical instrument, both individually and in a band […] And with the third intervention, music became an important part of math class; music-mathematics integrated interventions in which music is integrated into maths in various ways.”

In all cases, the children participating in the various interventions had their math skills tested before and after the study period. 

“Overall,” Dr Akn explained, “music in any form was associated with better math scores.”

“To summarize the findings, 58 percent of the children who had taken regular music lessons and 69 percent of the children who had learned to play a music instrument performed better on the math tests.”

“But,” she added, “the integrated lessons in particular had a great effect. Because no less than 73 percent of the students who also had music lessons during maths lessons noticed progress.”

The size of the effects observed came as a surprise to the researcher.

Dr Akn also explained that the interventions had the greatest effect in younger age groups. This would seem to suggest that the best way forward is to embed music within the math curriculum from an early stage, an idea that might bring cries of joy or consternation from math teachers depending on their own musical prowess. 

Music simply makes math more fun.

Dr Ayça Akn

In Turkey, where Dr Akn is based, as in much of the rest of the world, musical interventions are not often included in math instruction. It’s something that she would like to see change.

“Based on the results of the research, it is thought that interdisciplinary learning environments that allow mathematics and music teachers to work together might contribute to increasing students’ mathematics achievement and their mathematical beliefs and decreasing students’ mathematics anxiety.”

This second point is another important strand to all of this: beyond actually helping to improve students’ math skills, there’s some evidence that the addition of music can help those who suffer anxiety around arithmetic.

“Even children who have difficulty with math and have therefore developed a certain fear of math can relax a little more thanks to music,” said Dr Akn. “Music simply makes math more fun.”

This makes sense, given what we know about how music can benefit our wellbeing at all stages of life. A recent report from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 75 percent of adults aged 50-80 said music “relieves stress or relaxes”, and 60 percent said it “motivates or energizes”, which sounds like the ideal state of mind to be in before tackling a math class.

The feelings that are evoked by music also seem to be remarkably universal across human cultures. Recent research from the University of Turku in Finland found that Western and Asian listeners experience similar emotions and bodily sensations when listening to the same tunes. This suggests that interventions that bring music into the math classroom could have wide appeal.

But what might these interventions actually look like? Dr Akn has some suggestions.

How do you bring music and math together?

“Music into mathematics lessons can be designed in different ways,” she explained. 

“For example, students can clap their hands in time to songs with different rhythms. You could even design musical instruments using math. In addition, mathematical problems can be solved on the basis of original pieces of music. Or the other way around, making pieces of music based on mathematical patterns. Mathematics can also be represented in alternative ways, such as in musical notes.”

Dr Akn stressed that this need not put an extra financial burden on schools – simple rhythmic instruments that would do the job just fine could even be made by the students themselves. It’s all about helping children to look at math in a new way, a way that will hopefully be more accessible, particularly to those who have struggled in the past.

“These methods not only help children understand key math concepts, but also enable them to see the parallels and connections between math and music, which provides a richer and more engaging learning environment,” said Dr Akn. “I believe that this is an important way to get students involved in math and have a good time.”

Math is a vitally important skill. A good grounding in the world of numbers can help kids, whether they aspire to start their own business, cure the next pandemic disease, solve a longstanding mathematical mystery, or simply navigate the adult world with confidence. 

But it’s fair to say that learning math doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Why shouldn’t we try something that might make that learning process better? According to Dr Akn, and many of the authors of the papers included in her analysis, it just makes sense that music would fit into this picture.

“Maths and music may seem like two very different worlds, but in fact they go very well together.”

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