Posted by: John Colby | Wednesday April 16 2008

Maths and Music

Just another of my passions is music. I sang in choirs and played in orchestras when I was younger but now confine myself to listening and appreciation. When I was at a maths conference in September last year I spotted a book on Mathematics and Music. Borders, on my last visit, convinced me to join their mailing list by offering a 20% voucher, so we know where that’s going to be used. How I’m going to use it in teaching I don’t know, but I suppose that I’ll find a way.

And on the book theme I visited the library today and came away with a new Birmingham City University borrowers card, to replace my nearly new UCE Birmingham card that was issued to me last year after my original cardboard card died the death. Along with this I collected copies of all that were available of the “Getting the Buggers to …” series. “Getting the Buggers to Add up” is my personal favourite. Although written for schoolteachers they undoubtedly have a place in Higher Education. While this may be good for the authors in collecting more royalties it does show how much universities may have to modify their thinking. In saying this I mean that we should not reduce or dumb down the curriculum but that we should recognise that many people with aspirations of succeeding at university need extra assistance to be able so to do. A colleague has recorded that at least one student has said that they came to do business because they needn’t do maths, so whatever we do it’s going to be an uphill struggle to both get students to realise that the skills we teach are necessary and we’re not just doing it out of spite or just to create difficulty.

But back to music. When I was learning to play, or rather scrape at, the ‘cello, my very enlightened teacher showed me the maths associated with music in terms of the length of the string and that the amplitude of the vibration was related to the volume of the note produced. We investigated the various frequencies and harmonics that produced sound of a certain quality and hope that I played better for it. At university I was into choral singing, especially a capella. So now I’m teaching maths I think I’m going to go back to some aspects of the music to try to gain the interest of those I’m teaching. Whether it’ll work i don’t know.

And the music playing while I’ve been writing this was Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez.


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