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Functional Melodies
Finding Mathematical Relationships In Music

Notes From Author's Journal

A Candid Note From The Author's Journal . . . For a struggling musician in search of fame and fortune, substitute teaching seemed to be an ideal way to supplement one's income while doing meaningful work. That was good enough for me, so I no sooner found myself teaching middle school students in Daly City, California, when it happened. I was confronted with the ultimately uncontrollable classroom. With about one week of classroom experience under my belt and zero teacher training, I thought to myself, what on earth can I do to deal with this? What would possibly get through to these kids? Hmm . . . music seems to be one thing most kids relate to, so what the heck; I ran home at lunch and got my programmable drum machine and decided to wing it--to try to make some mathematical sense out of something that was already a big part of their world.

It worked.

My motivation to combine math and music on that fateful day in Daly City was born out of sheer desperation--just an inexperienced substitute teacher trying to find any way possible to pacify a rebellious group of middle school students. The logic was simple. I thought to myself, an alarming number of students view math as dull, difficult, and boring--something to be avoided at all costs. Many of the same students remain glued to their CD players for hours each day. They hold music as their greatest ally, as the ultimate expression of their identity. Amidst all of this, my own experience as a musician and mathematician has shown me how the language of music is deeply rooted in mathematics. The connection is so glaringly obvious, why don't teachers use it? In my eyes at that point, music appeared to be a "silver bullet" for reaching kids in mathematics.

Through the years that followed, a commitment to the teaching profession, graduate school, designing curriculum, and teaching high school math, the music/math connection remained a persistent theme. I was determined to realize the vision I had in that classroom in Daly City; to help kids understand mathematics through music. Each step of the way it has become more apparent that the music/math connection offers far more educational value than merely entertaining or pacifying kids. Access to deep understanding, inspiration, motivation, improved math self esteem, meaning, relevance, and motivation are all benefits my students have enjoyed through these activities.

Writing this book is in some respects an arrival point, a culmination of years of work, thought and research. But it is also a beginning. Each of the activities presented here opens the door to an integration point that could be the subject of an entire unit in itself. In Functional Melodies, the surface of the math/music connection is barely being scratched. Care has been taken to make this connection open to nonmusicians, both teacher and student alike. Indeed, non musicians have much to gain from a musical point of view. Each activity provides fertile ground for further exploration and development.

It is probably safe to say that there exists no "silver bullet" that can unlock the mysteries of math for kids, but there does exist a vast untapped reservoir of unique vantage points, contexts and ways of thinking that can be utilized to open the math experience to more people. I became a math teacher because I believe that too many students' are deprived of a balanced math education. Too much of what I love about mathematics is left untouched. Rarely is students' thinking pushed to wonder about the role of math in the larger context of nature, culture, and philosophy. Too often the experience of math is the memory of rote calculations. Too often content knowledge is disconnected from its context and disected into discreet packages for educational convenience, sterilized to the point of irrelevance. In this state of affairs it is no wonder that the entire school can begin to look irrelevant to kids.

I hope these activities can help to expand the way you think about teaching and learning math in your classroom, to challenge and push your concepts of what it is about mathematics that you love, and what it is about math that we would like our students to wonder about.