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The Correlation Between Music and Math: A Neurobiology Perspective

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Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

The Correlation Between Music and Math: A Neurobiology Perspective

Cindy Zhan

I remember the first time I heard the statement "Did you know that listening to classical music enhances your mathematical abilities?" I was both intrigued and excited, intrigued because I did not understand how music and math, two seemingly unrelated subject could possibly affect each other. I was also excited because I began to view classical music as some kind of magical potion that would transform my math skills from decent to extraordinary. When I had the opportunity to write this web paper, I immediately jumped into the topic of music and math. The questions that I wish to answer throughout this paper are; does listening to music really help you do better in math? If so, which part of the brain is controlling the correlation between math and music? In addition, how does music stimulate the brain in a way that enhances mathematical abilities?

It turns out that there is much evidence that supports the positive effects of music on one's ability to do math. Most research shows that when children are trained in music at a young age, they tend to improve in their math skills. The surprising thing in this research is not that music as a whole is enhancing math skills. It is certain aspects of music that are affecting mathematics ability in a big way. Studies done mostly in children of young age show that their academic performance increases after a certain period of music education and training. One particular study published in the journal 'Nature' showed that when groups of first graders were given music instruction that emphasized sequential skill development and musical games involving rhythmn and pitch, after six months, the students scored significantly better in math than students in groups that received traditional music instruction. (1)

The result of this study posed another important question. How does this type of music that emphasized sequential skills, rhythmn and pitch manage to improve children's ability to do math? It turned out that there are two distinguished types of reasoning, spatial temporal (ST) reasoning and Language analytical (LA) reasoning. LA reasoning would be involved in solving equations and obtaining a quantitative result. ST reasoning would be is utilized in activities like chess when one needs to think ahead several moves. The effect of music on math sometimes termed the Mozart effect. The Mozart effect gain its name after the discovery that listening to Mozart's compositions, which is very sequential, produces a short-termed enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning. Some key reasoning features used in spatial temporal reasoning are
1. The transformation and relating of mental images in space and time
2. Symmetries of the inherent cortical firing patterns used to compare physical and mental images and
3. Natural temporal sequences of those inherent cortical patterns (3).

The same people who conducted the Mozart effect experiment also suggested that spatial-temporal reasoning is crucial in math. The areas of math that require ST reasoning are geometry and certain aspects of calculus, which require transformations of images in space and time. In higher mathematics, the ability to write mathematical proofs is also associated with ST reasoning because proof writing is a task that requires intuitive sense of natural sequences and the ability to think ahead several steps.

As to the question, what part of the brain controls the correlation between math and music, there are also many resources that provide answers. Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, found that certain regions of the brain such as the corpus callosum and the right motor cortex, were larger in musician who started their musical training before the age of 7 (2). As to what happens in that area of the brain when one listens to music, we turn to the experiment performed by Xiaodeng Leng and Gordon Shaw. Gordon and Leng developed a model of higher brain function, which is based on the trion model. The trion model is a highly structured mathematical realization of the Mountcastle organization principle, with the column as the basic neuronal network in mammalian cortex. The column comprises minicolumns called trions. One particular columnar network of trions has a large repertoire of spatial-temporal firing patterns, which can be excited and used in memory and higher brain functions (3). Shaw and Leng performed an experiment in which they mapped the trion model of firing patterns in that particular column onto various pitches and instruments producing recognizable styles of music. This mapping of the trions gaves insight to relate the neuronal processes involved in music and abstract spatial-temporal reasoning (3). It shows that the part of the cortex, which contains the repertoire of spatial-temporal firing patterns, can be excited by music and is utilized in higher brain functions such as spatial-temporal thinking in mathematics.

In conclusion, my research into math and music does seem to suggest that music enhances mathematics skills. Music targets one specific area of the brain to stimulate the use of spatial-temporal reasoning, which is useful in mathematical thinking. However, as to the question of whether or not music is the magical portion that will elevate anyone's ability to do math, the answer unfortunately . . .would be no. Just because most mathematicians are fond of music, dosen't mean that all musicians are fond of mathematics. I found a letter posted on the web written by a fourteen-year-old overachiever to a mathematics professor. The student expresses his fraustration that even though he is an excellent musician, math is one of his weakest subjects. In math, he is not making the grades that he needs to stay in a certain prestigious academic program (4).

This letter seems to suggest that listening to music, or being able to master a musical instrument does not automatically guarantee that one can perform well in math. In other words, there are many musicians who are good in music but not in math. Music is a lot more than notes conforming to mathematical patterns and formulas. Music is exhilarating because of the intricacies of the patterns that occurs. Whether or not these patterns resemble math has no relevance to many musicians. More often than not, musicians are inclined to practice music because of the wonders and awe that they feel for music even if they are not aware of the math that is in music.


WWW Resources
(1)Making the case of music education
(2)Music on the mind
(3)Spatial-temporal versus language-analytical reasoning: the role of music training
(4)Letter written by a young musician



Comments made prior to 2007

Are you basing your conclusion on a letter written by a fourteen year old student? If someone has low math skills there are many factors that could lead to that. There aren't any studies that I've seen stating that the study of music will raise math scores or create a situation where a student will excel in mathematics. The studies will show that the study of music will enhance the brain function and thought processes involved in mathematics and scientific thinking. A result COULD be increases functionality in mathematics. Whether a student is aware of this or not is irrelevant. A student doesn't have to be aware of learning for learning to take place ... Aron, 24 January 2007


Serendip Visitor's picture

Music and chess?

Can music Skills help your chess game?

May be a good topic for your next science fair project.

Serendip Visitor's picture

this made me smile

this made me smile

m anwar kamal's picture

Music and mathematical relation.

I saw many articles related to :music and mathematics: relation,but what i have done not came in review.
I developed the rule of chords generation,which (100%)match with the theory.
Any organization or institutions if wants to develop further please contact.
Best regard.

Liza's picture

music and math

I was getting so frustrated with trying to help my 6 year old daughter learn math. She has some problems with comprehension. I hadn't even thought about using music to help her learn math until tonight. I saw her sitting in a chair reading and listening to a book. It was a book that had a CD with it. Anyway, it then dawned on me that if something like a CD of someone reading the book she had in front of her captured her attention, I wonder if playing music that she likes might be able to help when she was doing math?

So I tried it. It helped out enormously. We were laughing and having fun working on math. It kept the stress level down. It kept her focused on the main task of doing the math, which was the main problem I was having.

She usually has a very hard time being interested in doing math because she would get easily distracted by almost anything. She actually seemed to understand things better by the end of our musical math session. Going to try it out again tomorrow and see what happens.

I am excited to see if this will work again or if it was just a fluke.

Katia Ennes's picture

tese de mestrado

Estou escrevendo minha tese sobre a música e matemática.Seus beneficos,como a música facilita o aprendizado e a dinamica das aulas de matematica.No entanto minha banca argumenta que não possui fundamentação cientifica que respalde minha tese.Gostaria de pedir ajuda neste sentido.O que posso fazer para que minha tese seja aceita,grata Kátia

quinnscupcake's picture

Music and Math... My 2 fav things!

I am in advanced choir and math and I loved researching this subject!

Serendip Visitor's picture

Advice Needed

hi...i hv my science fair in da coming week..i want to present this topic...can u please tell me ASAP dat how did u perform tis..or how did u present tis project in your fair ???

Anonymous's picture


YES!!!! this gives me a reason to listen to my music or at least tell my math teacher she should make a play list. I mean my science teacher has already and she plays it its not even old boring songs LOL

Ryan's picture


I am doing some similar research with the correlation between music and math. I liked your article and was wondering if I could get in touch with you and further discuss the issue. My email is or if anyone else has any insight on the topic it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much

Anonymous's picture

Need Help! Please reply

so im doing this science fair on "are there mathematical patterns in music?" (copyright). i read this article and i did help me a bit into this topic. but my question is that how can you test or find out if there truly are mathematical patterns in music. i read lots of articles on the net, but it all seems so confusing with all those fractions and sort. i could just answer my question in simple language i would gratefully appreciate it. by the way im in grade 8 but id like my science fair to make it to nationals this year. so if you can please reply back.

Anonymous's picture

Music helps me

Music helps me concentrate,keeps me focused and helps me alot...I prefer instrumental music it doesnt have to be classical or mozart, it could just be something by antonio pinto, or Hans Zimmer(The man behind the batman begins/Dark knight soundtrack)infact Im listening to it right now as I study math.

Anonymous's picture

i tried an experiment

I was doing a science fair project and i made two grade 5 students listen to music and do some multiplication and division but it turns out it never worked because the two kids did not get good grades. So I agree with this article.

Anonymous's picture

i think music does improve

i think music does improve your math skills because when i was younger all i listened to was jazz and classical music. Now i'm in honors math and i love math. My sister didn't listen to any type of music when she was little and now i always have to help her.

joy's picture


this article is a big help!I'll be needing this kind for my thesis!

Need to study's picture


Thanks this helped alot on my project. I did not know that music can help with math..."back to the Ipod". Thanks again!

Question's picture

Smooth Jazz

Smooth Jazz also has a calming effect on me and I believe it helps me study... are there any studies done on the effects of Smooth Jazz and studying?

Anonymous's picture

I have done a paper on music

I have done a paper on music effect on brain my junior year, a science experiment my freshmen year, and a am currently doing research for a persasuive speech this year. my freshmen year in college. i have experiment on myself for the past couple of weeks. i will have to say, listening to classical (specificly baroque) has help me not only in math, but also in my bib lit class, english class and studying. it, like said in so many books and website, has helped me to become calm and relax. classical music was specificly created to get the brain working. it's all about the 60 beat per minuite beat pattern. that isn't in your online paper, and honestly, this is a semi-poorly written paper.

Anony-mouse's picture

I have done a comment on "I have done a paper on music"

I have done a comment on "I have done a paper on music" my junior year, a science experiment in 4th grade, and a am currently doing research for a persasuive[persuasive] comment right now. I am not sure what this comment was trying to say. It did not offer any encouraging advise nor could I find it in anyway beneficial to the author of the paper or any of its online readers. It states some information but few logical claims toward the paper it comments. It attempts to gain credibility through stating assignments the author participated in yet avoids the name of their college. There is no sense of citation toward how they knew why "classical music was specifically created". In addition, how do they know what "it's all about"? I can assume some connection to time (60bpm equals 1 second), but I find not even the closest sense of research or credibility from this limited comment, although I would be interested to read any findings that support this claim. Punctuation is also confusing throughout (i.e. commas v. periods and Capitalization). Although I may be arrogant to the fact that possibly this person does not posses English as their native tongue or lost their pinkies in a freak accident. Nonetheless the commenter remains anonymous and I remain Anony-mouse, "and honestly, this is a semi-poorly written [comment]"

Anony-mose's picture

I am replying to "I have done a comment on 'I have done a...'"

I totaly agree with you Anony-mouse, that comment did not help anyone: the author, is readers, and who ever else needed it. Classical music WAS NOT designed for a better education: When classical music was created, education wasn't very important. "Classical music" was originaly created when Louis Armstrong played trumpet. His time is long gone, and we have hence moved forward. All music orginated from Africa and slowly changed to classical music when it was brought to The Americas. Louis Armstrong was the "creator" of blues*. He took "classical music" and twisted it his own way and then it was later known as blues. After that, Jazz was created from blues, along with swing. Thhen Elvis Presely came along and created Rock, and that turned into countrie, hip-hop. Hip-hop then turned into rap, and somehow alternative music came along. Classical music was created to entertain, not to educate. The likes of yourself (anonymous) makes me angry: don't post a comment about an article you know nothing about, and by the way, this an 8th grader.

anon.'s picture

no offence, but i dont think

no offence, but i dont think you are quite right either. classical music started waaaay before Louis Armstrong. The dates of the Classical Period in Western music are generally accepted as being between about 1750 and 1830. i think you were refering more to what we know as "classics" classical music features such composers as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bach and Salieri. Louis Armstrong also was not the inventor of jazz. he was highly influencial in the transformation of jazz and blues but was not the creator.

Alison's picture

why does classical music

why does classical music make math scores better?

D. G.'s picture


I can tell you I learned to play and read music for percussion instruments in the 7th grade. I am not a mathematical genious, but I can tell you 2-3 years after getting into music I began doing very well in my math classes. I have heard it all my life and now I have lived it; playing/listening to music helps mathematical skills. I guess it opens something in the brain that helps make the connections needed to grasp the math concepts.

quinnscupcake's picture

Math and Music

Umm... I am in advanced math classes and I have been since 7th grade, and I am a junior. I have also been in advanced choirs and band since 7th grade. I play the flute and I am a low-alto. I happen to be very talented in both and I think it is just a coincidence.

George Karagiannis's picture

Some thoughts

I've read this topic carefully and i do have some questions to post.You refered on studies based on children though, were there any age limit on your studies?
The experiments conducted on childrens below 7 years old?Am asking all these just cause i do have a theory about that.If we accept that music is a "pack" of informations recieved by children,my theory has to do with the fact that while someone is on an "evolved IQ age limit" the amount of informations gained from that person helps his inteligence evolve better.So the issue is "Does music helps on the mathematical thinking or its just a huge amount of informations related with the IQ evolution?".If we think a totally theoritical experiment with 2 brothers twins,the first one recieves high classic music knowledge and the second one recieves high computer programing will they achive same results on maths?
I forget to mention that am a mathimatician and also i ve studied on a mysic highschool and have several degrees on instruments and classical music theories.
Now about the Mozart effect...
If we consider that music phrases can be "translated" with geometric shapes what sort of space would a Mozart piece would create?Thats something worth thinking of it,just my guess is that it wouldnt be a symetric space cause many pieces keep birthing motives endless ,motives and effects that keep building something but not ending together.Anyway thanks for reading this and good luck with your researchs,really looking forward for an answer or something.

Anonymous's picture


we are doing a science fair on this project u did and we need help the science fair is on the 28 in feb and we just started.

Anonymous's picture


what kind of materails would you need to do this kind of project??

Serendip Visitor's picture

scoence fair experement

Im doing my science fair experiment on listening to music while studing and was looking for sources to put in my paper. This helped alot. Thanks!!!

Anonymous's picture

we just finished a 4th grade

we just finished a 4th grade science fair project on a topic very similar
We had a group of 5th grade students be our control group. We administered 2 minute math tests 4 times (once every Monday) of multiplictation facts. It was the same test each time on the same colored paper. We played a CD of different music. We had 4 group 1 no music, 1 pop music, 1 classical music and one hard rock. Music did make the scores go up. With hard rock the student improved their average by 7 questions. It was a fun project.

Hope this helps

Anonymous's picture

thanks so much i did a

thanks so much i did a project for school its due tom. and i needed research it really helped thanks

W Wolfe's picture


Recently I've been looking at the correlation between mathematics, music and hidden codes. In my life I've been a student of music first and of mathematics second. After having read and performed so many different pieces of music from so many different eras, I know that codes, or messages can be placed within the bars of music, the notes themselves from what note they are to the length of time they are to last and their placement in the piece. However, the more I try to research this, the less I find. I know I cannot be the only person to have seen this pattern. My question to you is, have you seen this is pattern as well?

Clarinetist from Smartville's picture

Yes!!! Comment to W.Wolfe

I have seen what you referenced in this comment. When I close my eyes and listen to a performance or listen to something on my iPod I can basically tell what the person was thinking. When reading the music, I can see hidden motives, you know?