Music and Maths: Inclusion and Exclusion

Music and Maths. If you understand the symbols you're in. If you don't, you're out. How does that make you feel?

Music and Maths. If you understand the symbols you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out. How does that make you feel?

I love music. I listen to music a lot and I love discovering new artists, styles and sounds. I also play the guitar – and in a Dylanesque sort of way – I am pretty good.

But I always feel inadequate about music – excluded from ever really being a real musician. And the seeds of my sense of exclusion were sowed early in my life.

I remember being told by Mrs. Hughes, the teacher in ‘Junior 3’ (the modern Year 5) that my voice was flat and I couldn’t sing in the choir for another teachers wedding. I was devastated – and I didn’t even know what ‘flat’ meant!

At secondary school – my sense of exclusion from ‘proper music’ was cemented by lessons teaching rules and nomenclature that made no sense to me at all. Even while I was teaching myself the guitar and teaching myself counterpoint and harmony at home – I was always a dummkopf in music at school.

And as as adult, trying to learn piano, my teacher would persistently use terms such ‘dominant’ (The fifth degree of the major or minor scale. Also, the term for the triad built on the fifth degree, labelled V in harmonic analysis.: is that clear?) or tell me that some tune was “2:2 not 4:4”  or alternatively that it didn’t matter and could be either. And then there were all the weird symbols on the page!

In the many years of trying to learn music formally, I can recall only three positive comments to balance the innumerable criticisms of my lack of understanding and dedication. And that’s not even to mention all the ‘class’ associations. All in all, I just gave in. And I continue to give in.

But my experience of interacting with music professionals makes me reflect on the experiences of the many adults I meet at Protons for Breakfast who feel excluded from Science. Despite the fact that their taxes pay for pretty much all the science that goes on in the UK, they feel somehow unable to get grips with science on their terms.

Many people who had mediocre or bad experiences with science at school – lessons using incomprehensible terms – find that after school there has been no opportunity to engage with something which seems now to be profoundly interesting. Such as the structure of the matter from which they are composed! Or the fate of the Universe! And no matter how much they study or read – they still feel excluded.

And one big part of that is the ‘symbols on the page’ – the maths. And even if the maths expresses something obvious or simple – the act of using maths at all is enough to convince people that this ‘explanation’ is not for them.

We are just about to begin the seventeenth presentation of Protons for Breakfast, and knackered as I am, I am looking forward to it. Because that sense of alienation is like a poison, and I hate it. This class doesn’t solve any major problems in the world, but the feedback tells us that people really do notice that even though they still feel reticent, they have noticed that this class is different. That we are delighted to welcome absolutely  everyone, and most especially the people who feel like dummkopfs. My brothers and sisters

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2 Responses to “Music and Maths: Inclusion and Exclusion”

  1. Dominic Says:

    Perhaps if you sing flat your brain is attuned to a different modality? Do people who have difficulty holding a note but who can play music have different connectivity in the brain? Fascinating…

  2. Steve Lawless Says:

    The majority of people in the world who can play a musical instrument cannot read it. Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix and Chet Baker could not read music but all wrote classic tunes and could improvise amazingly. Music is primarily an aural and emotional experience. This, of course, is not the case with science.

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