A friend of mine was taken aback when a 4th grader in one of her music classes blurted out, “You’re pretty smart — for a music teacher!” My friend asked the little girl why she said that. “Because you only teach singing and playing instruments. Can you multiply? Can you divide? Can you do fractions?”
It’s pretty cute to think of this feisty little girl holding her teacher’s toes to the fire. But it’s also a little troubling. Is our educational system so compartmentalized that kids don’t get to see how interconnected things really are? Do our teachers work so hard to teach their own curriculum that there’s no mental space or time to tie the subjects together?
Below is some food for thought about the connections between music and 12 other subjects. I hope you enjoy these ideas — and feel free to add a comment if I missed any of your favorite connections!
Math — The little girl asked whether a music teacher can do fractions, so let’s start there! Music divides and subdivides constantly along a timeline. We work with whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes, and multiple ways to combine them, using triplets or adding a dot next to a note, to increase the note’s value by 50%. Music makes counting physical. Many musicians do not actually count numbers while playing but rather feel and work with beats, and fractions of beats, in a more sensory way. Maybe this is why many musicians are so intuitively good at math.
English — Musical expression matches up well with the study of linguistics — the structure of words and phrases in language. This is most obvious when there are lyrics to a melody. Shifting note values from one verse to another help the music express different ideas through words, with changing rhythms from syllable to syllable. This connection between language and music is also
at the heart of music without words. Musicians hear and play phrases with the same intention people have when speaking or singing. We use pickup notes the way we use conjunctions like “if”, “and” or “but. We use grace notes before a beat the way we sound consonants before a vowel; and we shift rhythms as needed, just as when speaking, we might insert a word within the “measure” — e.g. we can adjust instantaneously from “CROSS the STREET” (6/8 time) to “DON’T cross the STREET” (2/4 time) when a car is spotted careening down the road.
Public Speaking — Music is only communicated effectively when the timing is clear, just as a public speech only works when it is delivered with convincing phrasing and tempo. The best speakers seem to be the ones who also play music in some part of their lives.
Television and Film — Without musical soundtracks to support the story line, convey the emotional significance of what is happening, and foreshadow what is about to happen, visual media would seem sterile and would have a harder time engaging viewers. I remember realizing during one Star Wars movie that my boredom with the scene was entirely due to the music at the moment. Composer John Williams must have had a rough day when he wrote that passage of the soundtrack! Given what was going on in the scene, it suddenly occurred to me that if the film’s director had used something else, like heavy metal music, at that moment, the scene would have had a very different power. But never mind actual soundtracks — music with no visuals is often perceived by listeners as a sort of story, and it always sounds better and more coherent when there is a storyline going on in the mind of the musician.
Physics — Music only exists because of sound waves. The physics of vibrations, and the various combinations of multiple vibrations have a powerful impact on our feeling for music. The physics of shortening or lengthening strings or columns of air, or of creating nodes to force a string to vibrate in harmonics — these scientific facts are what governs the learning and playing of a musical instrument. These phenomena are just waiting for a science teacher to use, to help bring physics to life.
Biology — Breathing is inherent in music; it’s built into the flow of singing, playing, and dancing to music. Many biological functions are clearly musical — singing birds are the most obvious, or crickets, or frogs — but also the vibrations created by a bee or fly, who flaps wings at about 200 beats per minute and therefore can be imitated by playing a G or G#; or the mosquito which beats its wings at 600 times per minute, approximately a D#.
Social Studies — The playing of music with others, whether in an ensemble, or a theatrical production, or a spontaneous session — these are studies in group dynamics, leadership, and political interactions.
Business — No working musician can get by without using graphics, marketing, contracts, accounting. At some level all musicians are business entrepreneurs.
Teaching — All the skills of teaching any subject, and an understanding of the science of learning, are needed by successful teachers of music.
Psychology — Whether establishing a rapport with an audience, or probing the needs of a music student, musicians develop strong skills in psychology. Some students use music quite directly as personal life therapy and depend on their teachers to help them with their communication and thinking problems.
Social Work — Music therapists make direct use of music to treat patients in psychiatric or geriatric treatment in hospitals, nursing homes or chronic care facilities. They improve patients’ daily lives and help them work through problems they have a hard time confronting any other way.
Parapsychology — one of the only peer-reviewed studies of ESP found significant ability among musicians at Juilliard to sense which slide was being shown in a neighboring room. If true, what does this say about the skills of musicians to sense the needs and intentions of others around them, whether in a musical performance or otherwise?
As a musician, my ESP is giving me a strong feeling that you may have other examples of how music connects to other academic subjects, as well as to the bigger picture of life and work. Leave a comment and share your ideas!
©2018 Ed Pearlman