Music-Math Analogy

Music-Math Analogy

By Nakonia (Niki) Hayes


Mathematics is the heart of music, so shouldn’t we teach music as constructivist/ reformist mathematics educators insist that children learn that discipline? That is, shouldn’t music students be taught to play by ear?


Suppose your child had to learn to play a musical instrument by ear. There would be no focus on the symbols of music, sounds of specific notes, practicing of scales, learning classical pieces, or even learning some standard tunes (“Chop Sticks”) from which creative “extensions” could be made.

The small percentage of those students or teachers who could play an instrument by ear could not help you or your child. The intuitive players wouldn’t know and thus couldn’t translate their innate abilities into the internationally-known music symbols.

So the adopted method for all these “other” students would be called “discovery learning.” They would “manipulate” their instruments with teachers “facilitating” the their efforts in order to discover how to formulate a particular tune, which, of course, they had created themselves.

There would be no continuous practice—no “drill and kill” of repetition. All tunes would be considered acceptable because they were the original, personal creation of each student. Comparisons to respected or classical renditions might be possible, but that would be extremely time consuming, and it would not be considered “relevant” in today’s modern classroom.

Students who needed to learn by the old-fashioned methods, such as studying music symbols, their related sounds, and repetitive practice would need extra tutoring. Supplemental materials might be allowed that taught some “basic skills,” but the bigger picture to learning music, or the conceptual approach, must be maintained.

All of this supplementary material would cost extra money for the schools—and extra time for the students and teachers.

Schools of education that train teachers would insist this “discovery” method of learning music is progressive and provides social justice for girls and students of color in the music profession. They would base much of their beliefs on a few education researchers in the 1970s who had concluded that inductive and intuitive methods–those that focus on process rather than product–were needed by these two “subgroups.”

They assert while traditional music lessons that teach procedures and memorization without understanding may lead to a facility with technique, note reading and instrument mastery, those lessons do not lead to improvisation or playing music with feeling.

Further, with a glowing love for the advent of technology in music – such as computer sampling, electronic instruments, and digital recording technology that can improve the sound, including fixing pitch problems so that all singers sound like they’re on pitch no matter how flat (or sharp) they sing—education schools say music students no longer need to learn the basics of good vocal production, music composition, or even tuning their instruments.

Finally, music education tells teachers that white males and Asian students were the only ones who had benefited from the traditional methods of learning music for the past several thousand years. The progress made in music by the “ancients” and their methods are to be considered of no significance or relevance in the child-directed, “discovery” teaching classroom.

Many elementary school teachers liked the discovery method because it did not require their learning the music symbols and the many complicated relationships that could result from those symbols. High school music teachers hated the discovery method because they had difficulty finding enough qualified students to form a school band, symphony, or choir.

Many parents of elementary students accepted the discovery learning because the students seemed to “enjoy” it and they always had good grades in the subject. After all, the grading was based on subjective judgments about the student’s process of creating his or her own musical piece, and it was not a comparison to another’s work.

The consequence, however, is a growing lack of new musicians. This is impacting, among many music-related scenarios, high school bands, symphonies, and musical productions in theatres. Foreign students who had studied traditional music lessons are becoming the heart of America’s shrinking music scene.

How long before the public refuses to tolerate this destruction of music education and ultimately music’s contribution to society and the world? Will it take five years, 10 years, or 20 years? Will college music teachers stand by quietly as their incoming students’ proficiencies continually disintegrate? Will professional music companies and businesses ignore the shrinking pool of talent? Will business leaders believe the progressive philosophy that insists we must focus on “creativity thinking” and not worry about the significance of foundational work in the music discipline?

Now substitute “mathematics” for “music” and you have a picture of what has been happening in American mathematics education for the past 40 years.

“Whole math,” based on conceptual, intuitive, process-based thinking has replaced traditional mathematics education. (Yes, it is the parallel universe to the “whole language” fiasco that produced two generations of poor readers and writers in American education.)

Algorithms, symbolic manipulation, and basic skills are no longer mastered in elementary mathematics—and therefore in high school classes—because those represent the traditional, classical education formerly reserved only for white males, according to the leaders of “reform mathematics.” The traditional program represents “drill and kill,” they say. Traditionalists say the program offers “drill and skill,” as well as mastery of concepts.

This reform pedagogy was codified in 1989 by a private group called The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) when they published their Curriculum Standards for K-12 mathematics education. The National Science Foundation bought into their ideas, probably due to their emphasis on egalitarianism. From 1991 through 1999, the NSF pumped $83 million into universities and publishers that would create math curricula that supported the reformists’ social engineering agenda.

In 1999, more than 200 professional mathematicians sent a letter to Richard Riley, Education Secretary, asking him to withdraw support for the reform math products, due to their poor quality of mathematics instruction.

He ignored them.

In fact, even more multi-millions have been funneled into the programs from both government and private sources through today.

Educators have latched onto these cash cows as money is offered to “pilot” reform programs and students have become research subjects. Math wars have erupted among parent groups and districts in pockets across the country as parents (and a few teachers) try to change the direction of mathematics education in their schools. Parents are learning, however, that schools really don’t want parent involvement if it means they are going to question curriculum choices.

And test scores continue to show the disintegration of mathematics’ skills among American students.

When educators and businesses wonder why this is happening, they should think about students learning to play music by ear. That’s the real picture of mathematics education today. It’s been going on, officially, for almost two decades.

When will the people who can make a real difference—parents, colleges, and businesses who must look to foreign workers to bring in mathematical skills—conduct a reality check on the “whole math” philosophy?

When will they stop being schmoozed by an education establishment that’s protecting its turf and special interest groups? When will they demand a truthful answer to the question, “Whose interest is being served here?”

In essence, when will our children have advocates who understand proven mathematical logic and reasoning with regards to performance and product?

Or, will we continue to follow the false concept that equity and excellence can be achieved by everyone learning to play by ear.

Published July 19, 2007