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There's Math In The Music And Music In The Math



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There’s Math In The Music And Music In The Math

By Martha Coville

In his 1976 hit, “Sir Duke,” Stevie Wonder sang, “Music is a world within itself / with a language we all understand.” But what precisely is the language of music? According to musician Mike Kachua, who recently visited Carry Usher’s fourth grade students at Sandy Hook School, music’s language might just be math.

Ms Usher’s students were trying their best to settle into their seats when Mr Kachua arrived. “Mrs Usher,” said one student, “did you know sharks have teeth on their skin?”

Mr Kachua had found a perfect segue into his program. “I’ve been a professional musician for 13 years,” he told the class, “but before that, I was a chemistry teacher, and a zoologist. I worked for years with elephants and wolves.”

Ms Usher’s students whispered out “cool,” as only 10-year-olds can, with exaggerated vowels.

Mr Kachua continued. “I started playing music when I was 5 years old,” he said. Another whisper, again particular to 10-year-olds, of “awesome,” circulated through the classroom. Mr Kachua got to the point. “One day,” he said, “I was sitting around with my scientist friends and we noticed that a lot of scientists are also musicians.” His question for the students was: “What makes someone a mathematical thinker?”

The definition he arrived at serves just as well as a definition for “musical thinkers.”

“A mathematical thinker always asks the question, ‘How am I going to do this?’” Mr Kachua said. “Mathematicians learn to recognize patterns.” And, he said, “Musicians recognize patterns, too.”

Musical notation is, of course, a series of patterns. In particular, notation governing rhythm forms a pattern of fractions. “Musicians work with fractions,” Mr Kachua said.

It took Ms Usher’s class a moment to accurately define a fraction. Fractions, Mr Kachua reminded the class, are not merely a parts of a whole. They are equal parts of a whole. “The word ‘equal’ is key,” Mr Kachua said.

But Mr Kachua had not come to SHS to give a lecture. He began to draw a few crooked measures on the SmartBoard, and soon he was passing around instruments. “Measures,” he said “are groups of notes for musicians.” They correspond to “sets,” which are what scientists call “a group a something.”

A series of small circles on the SmartBoard represented whole notes. The students knew it, too. “The circle is a whole note,” one cried out. Another defined a whole note as “four beats.” Mr Kachua passed out a couple of small hand drums, or bodhráns. After a few minutes, the students could strike them in unison, and hold the note for four beats.

Next came quarter notes, and claves. Claves are a pair of short, hollow wooden sticks. Struck together, they make a bright clicking noise. Hesitantly, the students to whom Mr Kachua gave the claves fell into rhythm with the bodhrán players. “What,” said Mr Kachua, laughingly, “you mean musicians have to be able to count?” “Yea!” came the response from the class.

Finally, Mr Kachua passed out a set of smaller drums, this time with drum sticks on which he asked students to beat out half notes. The result was a lovely polyrhythmic beat. Stevie Wonder would have been proud.

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