Universal language of maths and music

12th March 2004 at 00:00
In the autumn of 2006, north London will be vibrating to the chants of the Highbury faithful as Arsenal Football Club move into their new stadium in Ashburton Grove.

But it won't be the only new development that will be buzzing with noise.

Down the road in Hackney, Arsenal's move will coincide with the opening of a new secondary school dedicated to excellence in music and mathematics.

The idea to build a school around notes and numbers came during a brainstorming session at the offices of the financial services company UBS.

Based in the East End, UBS has a commitment to community projects in Hackney and will be sponsoring the development of this new independent state-maintained academy. It is not only offering money but is involved in developing the spirit and goals of the school. With many PhDs in mathematics in its ranks, it has a great human resource of mathematical mentors to support the school.

A school combining music and mathematics provides the chance to put into practice the belief that there is a great bond between the two disciplines.

The great German mathematician Leibniz once wrote: "Music is the pleasure that the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting." Although there is an obvious numerical connection between mathematics and music given that counting underpins both, the resonances between the subjects go much deeper than this.

Mathematics is an aesthetic discipline where talk of beautiful proofs and elegant solutions is commonplace. An aesthetic sensibility is an essential part of being a mathematician. It helps you pick out the structure and pattern in the natural and mathematical world when at first everything just sounds like random noise.

People are often surprised to learn how much creativity there is in doing mathematics. The constraints of logic mean that there are limitations on where the next step of the proof can proceed. But within these constraints there is still a lot of room for choice and creativity. In contrast many people do not realise that musicians often create for themselves a rigid framework within which they then compose. Musicians have found the structures of mathematics provide a wonderful source of ideas for composition. The French baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau wrote in 1722: "I must confess that only with the aid of mathematics did my ideas become clear."

One of the failings of mathematical education is that so few people realise there is such exciting mathematical music out there beyond the dull arithmetic of the schoolroom. Imagine learning a musical instrument and never being played some Mozart or Motown. I was lucky to have a teacher at my school who took me round the back of the maths block after one lesson and opened my ears to what maths was really about.

There is evidence that the area of the brain that is involved in doing mathematics is the same as that activated by listening to music. Indeed, research suggests that learning music during adolescence, when the brain is going through a major growth spurt, has a benefit on mathematical development at this stage. It was the same year that my mathematics teacher took me around the back of the maths block that the music teacher dragged me into the music store room and pulled a trumpet off the shelf and shoved it into my hand.

Music and mathematics are both universal languages that can transcend national and cosmic boundaries. Science fiction writers always choose maths or music for their alien cultures to communicate with Earth. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it was the symphonic sequence of five notes that were used to say hello.

In an area of London where nearly 100 languages are spoken, the prospect of using mathematics and music to bond the community is an attractive one.

Certainly the Highbury faithful will tell you how singing on the North Bank and counting Thierry Henry's goals are one of the most powerful ways to unite a community.

Marcus du Sautoy is professor of maths at Oxford university and lives in Hackney. He is the author of The Music of the Primes (Fourth Estate)

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