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Why Does Classical Music Make You Smarter?

It can take years to learn to hear the song hidden in higher mathematics.

by
David P. Goldman

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April 23, 2013 - 9:10 am
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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.

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Top Rated Comments   
Nonsense.

Just as a skilled carpenter can apply geometry with utmost skill but falter in the geometry classroom, the mathematician may excel at academic geometry but falter on the construction site. Both are exercising the same concepts – challenging concepts – but just in different ways.

immanurl Goldstein has a valid point, there is no reason for classical music to be held as somehow more-refined than that of other genres. (The lives of many of the composers would put modern rock stars to shame, for example.) Fixed-time vs. fluid time? Sounds like you are not that familiar with modern jazz, but I wouldn’t limit it to that – the song that came to my mind was the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.” The song has three-different time signatures in a period of four minutes; I wouldn’t call that fixed.

For that matter, I have seen firsthand classically trained musicians falter at the prospect of playing jazz, swing, and bee-bop. The simple fact is that the subject in question here should not be classical music but music in general. Now, I’m not excusing those who go to concerts and shout “F_ck Yeah!” and get plastered, but I am saying that entire genres should not necessarily be written off because of their audiences. (If you must dismiss a genre, do so on the amount of effort – or lack thereof - that went into its creation.) The role of music we are discussing is its ability to influence intelligence through its requirement of serious dedication and effort to practice it. Any music that requires an equal amount of attention as, say, the first chair violin of Beethoven’s fifth symphony – be it the vocal eccentricities of Billie Holiday, the guitar stylings of Stevie Ray Vaughan, or the piano playing of Floyd Kramer – must be held in the same high regard.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
When I go to the symphony, I enjoy the fact that the audience is focused. They are paying absolute attention.

When I go to a rock concert, the crowd is screaming and droning, "F*ck, yeah!" DURING the music, they're stumbling out through the aisles (again: DURING the music) to go get beer, etc.

At the symphony, you don't even applaud between movements. You sit there and quietly wait for the next movement.

Focus. It's all about focus. That's what's needed for everything that gets you highly-scored on an intelligence test.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (34)
All Comments   (34)
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51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Great post. One microscopic thing:
>A red thread connects Augustine’s concept with the discovery of irrational numbers in the 15th century
Actually, Greeks in the Pythagorean cult were most likely the first to discover irrational numbers, which they called "incommensurable" numbers. This discovery, of course, scandalized them.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
"One and one is two..."
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for highlighting your article published in First Things. I felt like I'd just been worked through a grad seminar, without preparing for it. That "prepare a feast, and invite strangers off the street" kind of feeling. Thank you. I want to print it out, check out the music, and read the books you referenced, so I can understand what you just wrote.

Thank you for inviting us to your feast.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm leaning toward the cultivation of a good work ethic as the true link between music study and subsequent endeavors. Also, music, science, and the language of science, math, all have to do with patterns. In science, we disentangle and discover the patterns. In music we create the patterns. Sure, music will help adapt the mind to detecting patterns.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
You've been riding this hobbyhorse for a while; time to get off. Chinese success has little to do with music, and everything to do with the social limitations, Confucian tradition, the narrow track available for social advancement, and the parental push made especially acute by the one-child policy. Widespread musical study --whatever its arguable benefits-- is an effect, not a cause, and owes as much to the drive for consumer spending as it does to the drive for success.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
seconded
i'm tired of this "china envy"
most of these kids would be incapable of playing an instrument without the sheet music in front of them
skilled mimicry with a profound work ethic centered around pleasing the nearest authority figure imho
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
No. It doesn't "make" you smarter. Sorry, all you numbskulls out there. Rather, smart people -- people who read, people who ponder, people who pursue art -- are attracted to classical music. Lesser minds are attracted to, uh, just off the top of my head, Beyonce, or that half-wit spouse of hers, or WHATever. Little minds love that sort of crap. Me? I love Rachmaninov -- his symphonies, his preludes, his dances, his concertos. And I love the Dandy Warhols! What can I say, those guys rock. Check out Horse Pills. Kick it. But anyway ... What's the question?
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I shared a cabin at music camp with three trombonists. There is something about wind instruments that counteracts the beneficial effects of music study---perhaps brain damage due to hypoxia. All the trombonists, oboists and French hornists I've met had the symptoms.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hey! I resemble that remark! Should I hit the "abuse" button? :)

Or take it seriously?

Let's try the latter:

If I understand correctly, what you're saying is that bone players, oboists, and French horn players, considered as species, don't show the signs of increased intelligence that you're touting as the result of musical study.

I'm skeptical that musical study makes anyone more intelligent. But let's assume for the sake of argument that it does.

This being the case, most trombonists and horn players hardly ever see sixteenth notes or sophisticated melodic passages until they're at the college level. Band-music composers labor under the conviction that neither trombone players nor horn players at the high school level can play anything more sophisticated than ooom-pahs or offbeats. Same is true of tuba players. There are precious few musical solos in the concert band literature for trombone and French horn. When finally immersed in orchestral literature, French horn players have found something to live for. But (if musical quality of life is defined as having solos) trombonists still get short shrift. Most composers put trombonists behind a glass that says, "Break in case of bombastic necessity". Then we get to play soli passages at fortissimo volume. Soli is close to solo, but it's not the same.

But concert band literature has already done most of the damage in high and junior high school. Clarinets and flutes and trumpers and saxes are all over the place, note-wise, while trombones, French horns, and tubas are treated like red-headed stepchildren. For years, I've been saying that if you're a lower-brass player, you get about half of the quality of a music education that the reeds and trumpets get. Now, I think it may not even be that good.

Music educators must agree with you that the students on lower-brass instruments are dumber.

I don't know why oboe is on your list. Oboists are not dull-witted. They just live in a little solipsistic universe that presumes all music is nothing but a prelude to an oboe solo. They know their own parts very well but hardly ever listen to the whole piece. ;)
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
The author says "the first intimation of higher-order numbers in mathematics in Western thought comes from St. Augustine’s 5th-century treatise on music." That is not so. Long before St. Augustine, Pythagoras elaborated the connection between music and higher mathematics.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Pythagoras knew about the harmonic series. That is elementary mathematics. The idea of a igher order of number is stated clearly in Augustine, and takes us to Leibniz' calculus and Cantor's transfinites. Read the linked essay fro First Things.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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