Do Children Use Mathematics To Notate Music?

15 Feb

How children notate music has been deemed an important lens into the development of music cognition.  Previous studies on children’s methods of notation found that children use a combination of pictures, letters, and numbers to notate musical ideas.  In her study, Rena Upitis summarizes three additional observations from studies on infant musical notation:

1)      When children perceive music as “real” or authentic, they are more likely to use musical notation.

2)      The intended audience is a decisive factor on whether children choose to use musical notation.  If the listener is not familiarized with standard notation, children will avoid using such systems.

3)      Children may embrace music and assimilate into their or world-views.  In these instances, studies have found that children reported hearing music that resembles a pattern on a sweater or in a mosaic.

Upitis believes there is a salient bond between music notation and mathematics.  In this study she explored how children notated mathetmatics (tessellations) and compared her results to previous research on musical notation.

Ten third graders were selected for this study.  In preparation, Upitis researched and decided that tessellations, or repeated geometric shapes that cover a complete surface area without overlapping, are representative of a mathematic sequence that holds similarities to pitch and rhythmic sequences found in music.  The students were instructed to create a tessellating sequence and then to find a method of writing it down, to remember for later or to share with a friend.  After eight works of experimenting with tessellations, the children created silk paintings for their final compositions.

Upitis then compared the tessellation compositions to infant music notations taken from previous research: in instances where a familiar melody is to be notated, children avoid meticulous notation of pitch and note duration.  Instead they use symbols or pictures that can be generalized to the particular melodic idea (for examples, drawings of stars for “twinkle twinkle little star”).  Additionally, children tended to notate the more complex parts of melodies and tessellations over the austere components.  For example, if a tessellation was created using standards squares, but colored with many hues, children will neglect to notate the “square” aspect of their tessellation.  The same was shown in the notation of music.  If a simple rhythmic pattern contained a complex melody, the rhythmic pattern was often omitted.  Interestingly, Upitis notes that in creating mathematical notations, the children seemed to ignore their intended audience.  As previously discussed, the reverse is true for music notation.

Upitis found that the children’s notations of tessellations and music contained numbers, and pictures.  When notating music, children draw upon mathematic symbols and language. However, when notating mathematics, or tessellations, the children did not use musical symbols.  Thus, mathematic notation might be an integral role in the notation of music for children (but the opposite, might not be true).

Upitis, R. (1993). Children’s invented symbol systems: exploring parallels between music and mathematics. Psychomusicology, 12, 52-57.


One Response to “Do Children Use Mathematics To Notate Music?”


  1. Tweets that mention Do Children Use Mathematics To Notate Music? « parker tichko -- - February 15, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Graham Chivers, quippd Psychology and Parker Tichko, Parker Tichko. Parker Tichko said: Do Children Use Mathematics To Notate Music? […]

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