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Some Thoughts on Music and Math

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

I’ve heard that musicians tend to be good mathematicians, and mathematicians tend to be good musicians.

Likely this is true.

Stephen Sondheim said that he was fundamentally a mathematician, and that his studies with both Robert Barrow and Milton Babbitt* helped him understand the structure of music. This led him to the further conclusion that composition is craft rather than inspiration.

Sondheim wasn’t the only musician with mathematical inclinations. Brian May of Queen had both a PhD in astrophysics and a degree in mathematics. Art Garfunkel received a master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia, while John Buckland of Coldplay has degrees in both mathematics and astronomy.

And as for music helping out with mathematics, a 2012 study found that listening to music during a math test led to substantial increases in performance.

Too bad we all didn’t know that years ago when we were in school!

*Milton Babbitt was another famous mathematician/musician, who in 1961 produced his Composition for Synthesizer. Four years later, Robert Moog debuted the Moog Synthesizer and the era of electronic music that we know so well was born.

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