How to Teach Math to a Musician

Guest post by JK Mergens

Ludwig van Beethoven is considered to be the greatest music composer of all time. He was a musical genius, but surprisingly he struggled with math his whole life. Sir Isaac Newton, on the other hand, was a physicist and mathematician. He was recognized as one of the most influential scientists of all time, but the only interest he had in music was the science behind it.

Both referred to as geniuses, but clearly their minds were wired differently; one musical, one mathematical. We may not all be genius, but I do believe that almost everyone can be described as either musical (creative/artistic) or mathematical and recognizing which one your student is can help you teach middle school math.

How to Teach Math to a Musician - Education Possible

After homeschooling my son from birth to college, writing a math curriculum, and talking to hundreds of homeschooling parents, I believe that musicians and artists require a different approach when it comes to learning math. They have brilliant minds, but they process numbers differently. So I have developed some unique ways to help teach math to musically wired minds.

I Love My Job

One of the perks of my job is that I get to talk to homeschooling moms across the country every day. They call or write to me when they are having difficulties teaching math. Over the years, I have talked to, oh I don’t know, probably one thousand homeschooling moms about the problems they are having with math. Each story was unique, but over time I started to see a pattern; a common denominator, if you will. I noticed that every time I had a discussion with one of these homeschooling moms, our conversation would almost always end up with me asking the same two questions. And I always got the same two answers; EVERY time!

What Two Questions?

I would listen to the moms describe the person who is struggling to learn math (sometimes it was mom) and then found myself asking, “Is this student a musician or possibly an artist?” And every one of them answered, “Yes.” Then I would ask them if that same student could answer 18 + 7 in just a second or two and every time they answered, “No.” This lead me to believe that there are two different types of minds; those that are numerically wired and those that are musically wired.

Is your child musically wired?

Numbers or Music

Me? I’m a numbers girl. I can memorize long account numbers, everyone’s birthday, and dozens of phone numbers. I can solve math in my mind and I enjoy working on a tough problem until I get the exact right answer. My husband, on the other hand, is a musician. He can tune a guitar by ear. He can learn to play a song just by listening to it; on several different instruments, I might add. He has an artist’s mind and enjoys adding his unique touches to everything he creates; he’s everything that I’m not. Unfortunately, math has no room for creativity. You either have the right answer because you followed the rules or you have the wrong answer because you went on your own. Needless to say, math wasn’t his favorite subject and I quit high school band.

Can a Person Be Both?

stringsWhen I started homeschooling our son, I noticed he was musical, like his father. I had to teach him to sort numbers in his mind like I could. It didn’t come naturally to him like music did. He needed lots of visuals, explanations that made sense to him, helpful tricks, and quick reminders. After that, he was able to excel in math. In fact, by the time he was 16 years old, he enrolled in college and was hired to be a math tutor; at the college! Today he is a successful engineer who plays guitar and records music in his spare time. So it is possible to be both numeric and musical, but the way a musician/artist learns is different.


Fractions are one of the first concepts to stump a musician. There are so many steps involved when adding fractions and even more when converting a mixed number into an improper fraction. So I have created the Fraction BlasterThis one page, front and back, free printable, lists all the steps necessary to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions. Have your student keep this guide handy when working with fractions for a quick reminder and less tears.

Music and Numbers Find Common Ground

Do you know how to read music? I’m just talking about the basic stuff; quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes. Well then take a look at the video below. A musician will learn more about fractions and decimal numbers from this short video than he/she will by reading an entire chapter from a math book.

Helpful Tricks

Have you ever heard of the 9’s trick? It’s the best way to learn how to multiply by 9; I still use it. Watch The 9’s Trick video and in about 2 minutes you’ll learn an easy way to recall the answers. Already know how to multiply by 9? Then try the Elevens Trick. This video will teach you how to solve a problem as big as 11 x 32 in just a second or two.

Quick Reminders

Fractions aren’t the only stumbling block in math. There are a lot of math concepts that are easily forgotten. Things like multiplying with a decimal point, finding the area of a right triangle, and finding the slope of a line, are all tough to remember at first. That’s why I created the Big, Big, Bookmark.
Big Bookmark

This two-sided sheet has quick reminders for all of those concepts and more. Print it for free and then keep it in your student’s math book until all of them are learned. Think of these cards as their math training wheels; soon they won’t need them at all.

Theorems and Postulates

High School Geometry has, by far, the most to remember. I sat down and typed all the Theorems and Postulates in small print and it took over seven pages! So I designed a better way to present them. I organized them into five different categories: Angles, Triangles, Quadrilaterals, Polygons, and Circles. I omitted the ones that are rarely used in a proof and combined some of the converse statements, until I got them down to five sheets (front and back with drawings). I call these sheets Smart Cards and you can print them for free.

Smart Card

Math Can Be Taught

If you are struggling to teach math to a budding musician, you may just need a different approach.   He might not be naturally wired to sort numbers in his mind. Ask the big question to find out. “How much is 18 + 7?” If you don’t hear 25 within two seconds, then you’ve got yourself a little Beethoven. Have your student take my free Interactive Placement Test to find out what’s keeping him/her from becoming the next Sir Isaac Newton. I’m not sure if you can teach someone to be an artist, but one thing is for sure, MATH can be taught.

We would like to than JK Mergens for sharing this helpful information with us! 

JK Mergens married her high school sweetheart, Mick, nearly 30 years ago. Together they homeschooled their only son in Washington state. JK Mergens is the author of the Learn Math Fast System. Her articles have been published in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Red Deer’s Child Magazine, and Edmonton’s Child Magazine. Check out her website, to read more articles about math and homeschooling.


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