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Why Does Classical Music Make You Smarter?

April 23rd, 2013 - 5:24 am

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 or 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 entitled “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 the 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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All Comments   (12)
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Gotta disagree on this one.

Any music form, from classical, reggae, jazz, blues, anything you want to pursue and enjoy can range from basic to complex. The mental and physical benefits are proven if this is what you can do and will do in your life.

Some people might get benefit from classical music, others might from hitting out a complex drum rhythm. Others are not at all musical but get benefit from other mental/ physical activities like games or hitting a baseball.

Anyway talking about music is like talking about food. Sun is setting here in Ohio.

Shabbat shalom.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
So, does that mean governments ought to subsidize classical music in order to encourage the brains of more children to develop? Now, how would that impact public television and public radio...?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"the discovery of irrational numbers in the 15th century "
Perhaps "rediscovery", but since they are recognized in Euclid and precede him, incommensurable numbers have been known since several centuries BC. -
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Just an observation out of left field: Seems like the Chinese are hot on getting their kids trained in Western classical music only. Are any of them pushing their kids into learning Chinese music on classical Chinese instruments (don't even know what those are, though I know about the Japanese samisen).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
So, I am a practicing mathematician with PhD and there are a number of issues with David Goldman text. See wikipedia page for a more complete discussion of irrationalities.
Irrational numbers show up directly from Pythagorean theorem a^2=b^2+c^2 since with b=c=1 you have a=sqrt(2). It was indeed a big issue at the time and hence the name irrational. Euclid in volume 10 basically puts the issue under the carpet by using proportion. That is he does not define them but shows how to work with them. A very innovative approach at the time.

The Greek work was transmitted via the Arabs to Europe, but it was modified on the way. They essentially removed the theological aspect, a number is rational or irrational. They are clearly wrong when they say that irrational numbers are expressible via roots, but that is forgivable error. And they also invented calculus. What Leibniz and Newton invented was differential calculus, which is another thing.

But a true construction of real numbers, this had to wait for the 19th century with Dedekind cuts or Cauchy sequences of rational numbers. The full proof was given to me in second year of Ecole preparatoire in France.
As for Mathematics being related to Music, the first time I heard such a theory was from a banker actually. There are indeed Mathematicians that are good musicians but I attribute that to their classic education before choosing to be mathematician. If you ask me what mathematics is related to, I would say first Computer Science, then Physics, then Astronomy, etc. Music might come last.

Also, one needs to be aware that Cantor and Godel were not the most mentally stable persons even for mathematicians. Godel basically starved himself to death for fear of being poisoned. His thing about God is hard to take seriously. And the result of Cohen on Continuum hypothesis is not exactly in doubt or disagreement: it is independent from ZFC, i.e. it cannot be proved or disproved.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Music is not mathematics. Music is art and something which derives from an entirely separate process. Emotion, memory, something sensed but not understood is the signal of great music. The thing that for no particular reason plays in your mind on the way to work.

Beethoven 5th (how lowbrow) Stormy Monday, and something from the Monkees popped up today for me.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Having grown up in the Caucasian version (also less extreme) of a 'Tiger Mother' household, I take any study about music promoting intelligence with a grain of salt, based on my childhood experiences of years of forced music lessons.

As a kid I had what could be described as a benign apathy towards music. Though after a number of years of forced music lessons, apathy turned into hatred. It was never something I had an ounce of talent nor desire to learn. If was handed an instrument, I wouldn't play it, I would take it apart (I have always been mechanically inclined).

Somehow, Mom & Dad wanted a kid who could play an instrument, so I got stuck with over 4+ years of lessons and membership in the school band. The only thing accomplished was me being miserable and my parents being frustrated.

Finally in my teens, my parents relented (I just refused to play anymore). I haven't missed it a day since. As for mental development.. I am an engineer but I can say that I am happy I am in a field of engineering that doesn't involve things such as triple integrals and Laplace transforms. Those two items drove me nuts in college.

The only kids I knew who were good music were naturally inclined and by there teens, pretty much did it on their own volition. My best friend from high school was one of those kids. He still plays but only as a hobby. I told my wife that if we have kids, under no circumstances will I put them through what I went through when it comes to music.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Listen friends, and mark my words in this moment and this hour--
God is jealous for his name for his name is jealous.

Nor is this a charming flower to set before a man
nor one of his commands.

Yet, without Jesus, this is more than we can love as we desire peace,
and less than we can know as we desire joy.

For the sacred fire
that makes us liars--
I mean, that separates speech from dreams,
and separates our flesh from the future--
is God’s power manifested.
So, in the year and the hour-- for his sake, invest your desire in Jesus.
Follow his holy fire for right now. Right now he intercedes for us in heaven!

Some will say we are people of the way.
We're people of the way.
We praise his holy name
I am who I am.
I cause things to be.
I am the first cause of creation.
We praise his holy name

And say “Thank you Jesus for your precious blood--
better, so much better than the blood of Abel.

How then should we pray?

I pray bless me a lot Adonai.
Show me your kingdom and righteousness
in such a way that my thoughts words and deeds
reflect your wisdom and power--
and that-- for the sake of your honor and glory.
So that I will live in your presence
in this life and the next.
For your name sake
Let me hear my children praise your name
And their children too.
Let them woo 10 generations
coiled up in their dimensions
to then praise your name.
Let my enemies,neighbors,family, friends,
strangers praise Jesus.
the risen Lord
I pray all this in Jesus name.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Contrary to conventional wisdom on the subject, more and more studies are showing that there are many cognitive benefits to playing video games. My children enjoy their piano lessons and their games. It doesn't have to be one or the other.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Slightly off point. I recently bought a new Casio digital piano for a few hundred bucks so that I could practice in the evening with headphones when others want to watch TV. This instrument has perfect touch, the greatest possible dynamic range and it will never need tuning, voicing or regulation, unlike the grand in the living room. A concert grand for the masses.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
" Make them sweat. " Sure. And be arrested for child abuse.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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