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A Singing Harvard Mathematician On Using Music To Convince Your Kid They Love Math

Created in partnership with GMC, inspiring families to make the best of every moment.

Much has changed since your school days — smart boards are a thing, recess (almost) isn’t — but one thing remains: the math class refrain of, “When are we ever gonna need this?” Sure, math is complicated, but so are the other subjects comprising the coveted “STEAM” skillset, and you don’t see any kids out there kicking and screaming, “I hate building the volcano!” Tricky subjects can be made fun for kids, and math is no exception.

That’s what Anne-Marie Oreskovich hopes to achieve through her music video teaching tool Math Musical Minds. A lifelong singer and Harvard- and Oxford-educated math scholar, Dr. Oreskovich first saw the therapeutic value of music while leading groups of student volunteers to sing at schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. As she watched kids shed their fears of the doctor, she realized the same technique could help abate the scariness of math. Math and music are fundamentally intertwined, after all — the lead singer doesn’t yell, “One, two, three, four!” just to sound cool — and Oreskovich has a few tips to help your kid make the connection and stop running from math. It’s everywhere. They’d never escape anyway.

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Toddlers And Kindergarteners
To the tiniest brains, “Count” isn’t a verb, it’s a creepy purple dude who won’t ever stop laughing. Pattern recognition, however, is firmly within their grasp, and the first step towards making the music-math connection.

Start by simply playing any music your kid seems to enjoy — as long as it has a slow, easily audible rhythm — and helping them clap their hands, tap their feet, or move around to the beat. Align those movements with counting, first by introducing the basic numbers from one to 10, then counting forwards and backwards. Then add some music-making objects into the mix. (Dr. Oreskovich pro tip: “Spoons aren’t too loud.”)

The key here is helping them go from watching dad clap and tap like a goofball to making their own sounds while also starting to figure out the numbers. You’re combining rhythm and counting concepts with a movement component they can feel and understand to help them assimilate patterns. It’s an early introduction to structure and sequencing, which are both critical to math and advanced quantitative subjects that will be easier for them later if you start ‘em young.

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Grade Schoolers
By age 6 or 7, your kids will have a fairly sophisticated level of pattern recognition expertise, and by 8, 9, and 10 you can use music and rhythm to augment — not replace — what they’re learning in school, like ‘greater than’ and ‘less than,’ addition, subtraction, multiplication, and so on. For example, you can pair counting backwards with a slide whistle, the universal sound for something falling down hilariously. “The brain is wired to absorb these 2 concepts in parallel, so you want to harness the music and math portions of knowledge assimilation,” according to Dr. Oreskovich.

“The brain is wired to absorb these 2 concepts in parallel, so you want to harness the music and math portions of knowledge assimilation.”

You’re trying to trick your kid into believing (sorry, show your kid unequivocally) that math is fun, because it’s easier to feel good at something you actually enjoy. Relating math to tactile things like rhythmic exercise and dancing does that while removing barriers of boredom and fear of the unknown. Then, by the time they get to middle and high school, they’re ready for all the stuff you swore you’d never use. And they’re actually excited about it.

Middle And High Schoolers
You can teach geometry through music, and vice versa, by having kids create strings of numbers and map them to chords … or vice versa. In these activities, chords like C, E, and G are assigned numbers like 1, 3, and 5, such that any long string of digits from 1-8 that a kid randomly generates can be mapped to a chord sequence (musicians already do this — an octave is called that because it’s an eighth note). Play that sequence for them, and boom, they’ve gone from complainer to composer.

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Go a step deeper: mapping within different number bases (as in base-5, base-10 — you totally remember that, right?) will generate 2 wildly different pieces of music even if they’re created using the same equation. And if they’re already adept at an instrument, kids can start with a piano or guitar chord and map it back to see how it looks as an equation. “Music decomposes to math, and math decomposes to music,” Dr. Oreskovich concludes. And nobody’s brain decomposes, which is the most important thing.

“Music decomposes to math, and math decomposes to music.”

That doesn’t mean you should abandon rhythmic exercises to strengthen the tactile connection between music and math. “High schoolers love dancing, too. If they don’t want to dance, call it the cardio portion of math class or math homework. To whatever extent possible, help them get out of their chair and integrate the calculus they’re learning with their favorite music,” Dr. Oreskovich says. “Teenagers don’t want to sit around; there’s no reason you can’t harness twerking to teach math.” That’s a great point, with one important distinction: there are many reasons you, specifically, should never be twerking.