Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

A music lesson from a math teacher

I’m going to describe an example of a song to you. It goes

duhnuh nuh nuh

duhnuh nuh nuh nuh

duhnuh nuh nuh

duhnuh dunh dunh 

Now using that as your example, you write a song.

Imagine if this is how we taught music. How awful would the songs be if people learned music through descriptions of other music? Or just through words, or even notes, but no actual sounds? And for some reason you don’t get to use instruments or technology either.

We don’t enjoy music by having someone describe music to us. 

We don’t enjoy art by hearing a description of the painting. 

Sports aren’t fun when you’re reading the rule book.

Would you even call these things music or art or sports?

So why do we call this math?

What is 1/4? What is 2/8? What is the purpose of this?

Why are we only using words and symbols to describe our lives? Math helps us describe the world: REAL things that we can see and touch. 

But we take those things and abstract them, and turn a real thing into words. This is equivalent to turning music into words and trying to compose songs based on that.

The math we teach is not real

Of course people hate it! Numbers are replacements for real objects and measurements. They are symbols. Symbols without context are meaningless.

“Simplifying fractions.” It means nothing if you lack a context or a visual or a representation that you have seen and touched in real life.

Math is at least pictures. Better yet, video. That is, if you can’t touch and do it yourself. 

We need to make math REAL.

A description of a house being painted is a real-life application, but describing a house, especially when there are probably real houses nearby, is an abstract way to teach the concept of surface area. Give them a picture, or a model. Or let them build a house (miniature or not).


Here’s a fun surface area experiment:

I want to sound-proof this classroom with egg cartons. How many do I need?

Follow-up: Does sound proofing with egg cartons actually work?