The Role of Math In Music

How can you connect music and movement to math? By incorporating musical activities throughout your day, you can provide children with opportunities to strengthen basic math skills.

Think about the skills involved in singing a song such as “This Old Man”. This simple song incorporates many basic math skills, including matching and comparing (through changes in pitch, volume, and rhythm); patterning and sequencing (through repetitions of melodies, rhythms, and lyrics); and counting and addition (identifying cardinal numbers and adding one more with each verse). When you add moving to the beat, you have created an entire mind/body package of learning rolled into one song!

A Step – by – Step Approach

The acquisition of math skills follows a developmental sequence. Children learn the structure of math before they can use and understand its vocabulary and symbols.

Numbers are symbols that represent “how many” of something. Recognizing the symbols does not equal understanding the concepts they represent. Too often we begin working with children on numerals before teaching them what the number symbols mean. It’s important to remember that counting is more than memorizing a sequence of words.

Children learn about the basic structure of math by seeing the relationship between things. For example, matching things that are the same or equal is a basic math concept. In music, children use language, perceptual and auditory skills to match sounds, beats, pitches and speed or tempo. In fact, children do this (without even knowing it) every time they sing a song.

Musical Matching

You can focus on the skill of matching with simple “Call and Response” musical games. Sing a tone or make a sound and ask children to repeat it. Just one note, you can do it! Try making “sounds that cannot be spelled”, such as mechanical sounds, made-up sounds, funny sounds, even operatic sounds! When children match your sounds, they are using one-to-one correspondence skills (

As in any good math or science activity, if you “change the variable” you change and expand the experience as well as the understanding. Experiment with having children match sounds, beats, words, pitches, and speed or tempo. Try it with the voice and the body, with objects and instruments. Each time you invite children to apply these skills in a different way, you reinforce not only their understanding of the math concepts but their ability to apply and use their skills.

Use the rhythm of children’s names for a musical matching activity. Say a child’s name and invite children to match a clapping beat to it. My name “Ellen,” has two claps, but “Cassandra” has three. Ask children: Who has a name with a beat that matches yours? Can you tap the beat of the names with your feet? Can you snap it? Now here is a challenge: Can you tap the beat of your name while others are tapping theirs?

Children can not only clap out the beat of their names, but move to them too! Invite children to invent a one-, two-, three- (or more) part movement to represent the syllables in their names. For example, Jessica might move to her name with a three-part arm movement: “1 – arms out, 2 – arms up, 3 – arms down.”

Each time children match something, they are fully experiencing the mathematics concept of equal or same as. You can also practice the concepts of more than and less than with name clapping. What names have more claps? Which have less?

Moving in Opposite Ways

Add movements to your comparisons activity by playing an “opposites” game that invites children to physically explore the mathematical comparisons of high and low, fast and slow, up and down, and big and little. Play a recording of lively music and ask children to move freely to the music. Encourage them to make high movements and then have them do the opposite.

Sort It Out

Sorting and categorizing are important early-math skills. Children can sort sounds by timbre. Plastic, wood, and metal sounds all have a different quality or timbre of sound. Invite children to sort the classroom rhythm instruments by timbre. Then use them to accompany a favorite song.

Use an old favorite song such as “The Wheels on the Bus” – children can use the different parts of the bus (wheels, windshield wipers, horns, and so on). Change the words of “Old MacDonald Built a House” and ask children to sort and match each of the different types of sounds for each verse. What instruments could make the sound of a hammer, a paintbrush, a saw?

You can read more about math and music at the linked page, as well as at this post.