Thursday, May 15, 2014

Math and Musicals

I have a confession. I’ve not seen the movie Frozen. I’ll admit that I’d probably like it if I saw it. Then why haven’t I? Maybe it’s because everyone else has seen it and can sing the songs from memory. Maybe it’s because when I get the choice to watch Frozen or do something else, the “something else” has always seemed more interesting. Truth is, I’m not sure.

What I do know about myself is that I don’t like musicals, as a general rule. From my point of view, too often the pacing of a musical comes to a screeching halt when the music starts up. Meaning, the songs don’t progress the story.

Out of love for my wife, I watched Phantom of the Opera with her once. I really struggled with it. The music was good. The characters were interesting. The sets were beautiful. But I didn’t like it. How can that be? I don’t recall the specific details, but there was a scene where the characters were basically running for their lives. What would any sane person do in that situation? I can say pretty confidently that they wouldn’t stop to sing about the danger they were in—yet that’s what happened. Ugh.

But this blog isn’t a rant about musicals, believe it or not. In fact, a musical recently helped me realize something pretty wild.

While going to high school in the late 1980’s, there was a musical that was pretty popular called Chess. One of the songs even became a hit on the radio: One Night In Bangkok. I ended up buying the cassette version of the musical and I listened to it over and over.

With the recent advent of digital downloadable music, I was able to find the original soundtrack and buy it online a few days ago. (I could have found it for free, I’m sure, but the author in me wants to have creative people actually get paid for their work.)

I hadn’t listened to Chess for years, yet as the songs began to play, I found that I could sing along. It was trippy to recall lyrics and how they were sang after such a long period.

Around this same time, I was asked to cover a high school math class. I generally shy away from teaching math because while I learned it in school, I simply don’t remember it. Even when I looked at what the students were doing and tried to understand what was going on, it didn’t come back to me nearly as easily as the lyrics and music to Chess.

Why is that?

It’s one of the mysteries of the human brain, I’m sure. I’ll bet there are dozens of studies out there that prove people can recall songs easier than other things. Heck, there may even be some theories on why that is.

Maybe it means the human mind is designed to recall music better than math facts—yet students are required to take more math classes than music classes. Perhaps all the math classes are needed to help people think in a way that doesn’t come as natural as recalling music. Hmmm.

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