Thirty-six million Chinese kids now study classical piano, not counting string and woodwind players. Chinese parents pay for music lessons not because they expect their offspring to earn a living at the keyboard, but because they believe it will make them smarter at their studies. Are they right? And if so, why?
The intertwined histories of music and mathematics offer a clue. The same faculty of the mind we evoke playfully in music, we put to work analytically in higher mathematics. By higher mathematics, I mean calculus and beyond. Only a tenth of American high school students study calculus, and a considerably smaller fraction really learn the subject. There is quite a difference between learning the rules of Euclidean geometry and the solution of algebraic equations: the notion that the terms of a convergent infinite series sum up to a finite number requires a different kind of thinking than elementary mathematics. The same kind of thinking applies to playing classical music. Don’t look for a mathematical formula to make sense of music: what higher mathematics and classical music have in common is not an algorithm, but a similar demand on the mind. Don’t expect the brain scientists to show just how the neurons flicker any time soon. The best music evokes paradoxes still at the frontiers of mathematics.
In an essay for First Things titled “The Divine Music of Mathematics,” just released from behind the pay wall, I show that the first intimation of higher-order numbers in mathematics in Western thought comes from St. Augustine’s 5th-century treatise on music. Our ability to perceive complex and altered rhythms in poetry and music, the Church father argued, requires “numbers of the intellect” which stand above the ordinary numbers of perception. A red thread connects Augustine’s concept with the discovery of irrational numbers in the 15th century and the invention of calculus in the 17th century. The common thread is the mind’s engagement with the paradox of the infinite. The mathematical issues raised by Augustine and debated through the Renaissance and the 17th-century scientific revolution remain unsolved in some key respects.