Lullaby of algebra: How mixing music and math helps engage students

March 11, 2018

Jami Jorgensen, a math teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Hayward, teaches her students songs to help memorize math formulas.

‏Jami Jorgensen is the human jukebox of quadratic equations.

“Anything that’s an algorithm, I have a song for it,” said the energetic middle-school math teacher in Hayward Unified, in the east Bay Area. “I must have 100 songs. At least.”

Jorgensen, who teaches 7th and 8thgrade math, leads her students in ditties, chants and dance moves to help them remember basic formulas in algebra and geometry. A lesson on monomial exponent rules becomes:

“You thought we were done

Having fun,

But if your exponent is zero,

Your base simplifies to one.”

Jorgensen said that weaving music into math lessons has boosted her students’ test scores, enhanced their understanding of the larger concepts, improved the classroom climate and accomplished something few would think possible of middle-school math: Made it fun.

Many studies, including one in the journal Memory and Cognition, have shown that information set to music is easier to remember. It’s how epics like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were passed down through the centuries, and how toddlers learn their ABCs and 123s. People with Alzheimer’s disease might not be able to remember their spouse, but can often recite songs from their youth.

A 2009 study by a UC Davis psychology researcher, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, found that the region of the brain that stores memories is the same region that processes music and emotion. In short, music, memory and emotion are closely linked.

“Song and dance serve well to help us remember lyrics, or in this case math formulas,” said Patricia Swanson, a math education professor at San Jose State University. “And, indeed, there are strong conceptual connections between math and music. Perhaps the most obvious one at the elementary level is rhythm and the value of the musical note — 4/4 time, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes … ”

Jorgensen observes this daily in her classes at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where 75 percent of the students come from low-income families and 72 percent speak English as a second language.

On and off throughout their lessons, students sing math formulas and do math-related dance moves. Some of the songs are pop tunes in which Jorgensen swapped out “lyrics about Bacardi and ice” and replaced them with lines about “n” factors and variables.

Others are songs that she and students make up. With an associate’s degree in musical theater, Jorgensen has a natural affinity for singing and dancing and knows firsthand how they can aid in memorization and elevate one’s spirits.

Such musical activities lead students to enjoy math, which in turn leads them to learn more, Jorgensen said. And during tests, remembering math songs helps them relax and feel good, so they’re less likely to panic, she said.

Seventh-grader Mia Espiritu, one of Jorgensen’s students, said she never enjoyed math until this year. She and most of her classmates in fourth period had scored below grade level on previous standardized tests, but Mia said she’s finally understanding the concepts.

“Ms. J.J. teaches us new things every day, so it’s not boring,” she said. “And if I get stuck, I always have a song in my mind that helps me remember. I used to not get math. Now I do get it.”

Her classmate Guadalupe Gonzalez agreed. Math was always a struggle, but now she enjoys it.

“The songs help explain it better,” she said.

Memorizing basic formulas can make it easier for students to grasp larger, more abstract mathematical concepts because students’ minds aren’t mired in the minutiae, Jorgensen said. For example, it’s easier to understand the square root of 36 if you already know the answer to 6 multiplied by 6.

Jorgensen’s method has yielded results. In her 8th-grade geometry class from last year, 23 of her 40 students had perfect scores on the Smarter Balanced exam, and in the 7th-grade algebra class, every student exceeded the standards, she said. Seven of those students had perfect scores.

“It makes me excited about the students’ futures,” she said. “It opens doors for them and shows what they can achieve if they put in the effort.”

Mark Ellis, a math education professor at California State University, Fullerton, said he observed elementary teachers in Japan using songs and chants to successfully teach math to their students and he has used music to help low-performing middle-school students learn their multiplication tables.

Music in a classroom can relax students, take some pressure off and help teachers forge a cultural connection to their students, he said. He cited a 2014 article in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics about teachers who were highly successful using songs, chants and music to motivate students in underserved communities.

But it’s not the end of the story, he said.

“Music itself cannot teach kids to understand mathematics,” he said. “Music can help students improve dramatically, but ultimately math is not about memorization. It’s about reasoning, seeing patterns, making conjectures. It’s about meaning.”

Memorizing formulas will only be effective in the long run if students understand the concepts underlying the formulas, he said. Ideally, students should be able to come up with formulas on their own, with guidance from the teacher. In some cases, it’s not even necessary to memorize formulas because so many students have calculators on their phones, he said.

But either way, students with self-confidence and a solid math education in middle school are well positioned to thrive in the more challenging and abstract math classes they’ll encounter in high school and college, he said. Middle school math is the critical juncture where students transition from arithmetic to more complex concepts about proportions, ratios and multiplication, which are the basis of advanced level math courses.

Eighth-grader Jennifer Silva, a student of Jorgensen’s who also helps her teach younger students, said she’s enjoyed math so much she wants to pursue it in college.

“Doing the chants helps me remember what we learned,” she said. “When you’re in a test and you feel stressed, you just think of a chant and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that.’ And then it’s kind of fun.”

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