What do you mean there is maths in music?

Music has always been a special part of my life. Ever since I was born I have grown up surrounded in the wonderful world of music. My grandad was a trombone player, conductor and music teacher, my uncle is currently a professional trombone player for the RTE orchestra in Dublin and of course the biggest influences in my life; my mum a horn player and my dad a principle cornet player in a championship brass band. My whole childhood I was taken along to band practises, concerts and contests… I was always blown away by the talent of the people sat in front of me but sadly I never took an interest in playing an instrument myself, one of my biggest regrets! I always wonder “why?” but after seeing the time and commitment my parents had to put in, it must have put me off which is a shame because the reason they were so committed and hard-working, was because of the love and passion they had for playing music. “ Oh, well.. Jacqueline is the singer and dancer of the family” my mum always told her friends from band when they asked why I wasn’t playing an instrument yet. I really did love singing, oh and I can’t forget my attempt at playing (more like memorising) the keyboard for my higher music exam, they managed to bag me an A (I hope it was more the singing!), so I couldn’t have been too bad! I can’t forget the help my mum gave me with the theory either, she wouldn’t be happy if I never mentioned that!


So, even after having so many encounters with music, when I was told we had a lecture on maths and music, I questioned it. How much maths is there really in music? Well, a quote we were given in the lecture was a revelation! Connecting music and maths finally made sense to me:


“Rhythm depends on arithmetic, harmony draws from basic numerical relationships, and the development of musical themes reflects the world of symmetry and geometry.  As Stravinsky once said: “The musician should find in mathematics a study as useful to him as the learning of another language is to a poet.  Mathematics swims seductively just below the surface.”  (Marcus du Sautoy, 2011)


There are many connections:


  • Note values/rhythms –
  • Beats in a bar- being able to divide bars in to numerous fractions of beats in a bar
  • Tuning/Pitch
  • Chords
  • Counting songs
  • Fingering on music
  • Time signature
  • Figured bass
  • Scales
  • Musical Intervals
  • Fibonacci sequence


Many of these actually have quite an obvious link with maths when you really think about it.



Music and ‘golden sequence’:


Another, perhaps less known, but important, link between maths and music is the ‘Fibonacci sequence’. The Fibonacci sequence is a special series of numbers formed by using the sum of the previous two numbers to get the next number within the sequence. The sequence looks like this: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 and so on…


If we look at a piano keyboard we can see that the chromatic scale consists of 13 notes. The diatonic scale is composed of 8 notes and the pentatonic scale, 5 notes. In addition to this, the basic chord structures used in music consist of a triad of notes. These are the first, third and fifth notes in the common ‘diatonic’ scale.


I thoroughly enjoyed the mathematics and music workshop… firstly because it reminded me of my love for music but, more importantly, it taught me that something that I have been immersed in my whole life has, in fact, got a lot to do with music which I had never really thought about until that point! It made me consider all the other things in my life that probably has some sort of maths behind it that I haven’t discovered… yet! I am looking forward to teaching music in the future with enjoyable activities where the children can really see the impact maths has on music.


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