Math and Music

My parents instilled an appreciation for music with me and my siblings. As the youngest of five, I was fortunate to learn a bunch of instruments. I feel that my experience learning to play music directly correlates to excelling in math and later computer science. So here’s a rundown of my history inspired by many Facebook posts I’ve seen recently…


Mom was a classically trained pianist and even played in a radio broadcast once. So I took piano lessons and learned to play some simple songs, but damn it’s a challenging instrument. I have an electric piano now with lots of nice features but it takes a lot of time to compose something. Later I stayed at a home with an organ. It had foot-pedals, two keyboards, knobs etc. I composed a 3-part song on it that still runs through my head sometimes so eventually I’ll record it. Today I also have a Pocket Piano which is lots of fun since I’ve always enjoyed bands like Kraftwerk and DEVO.


The first instrument I played in a school band was the trumpet. It is a powerful instrument but you also have to learn how to maintain it by keeping the valves lubed, polishing it so the oil from your hands doesn’t affect the brass, and things like that. My uncle liked to borrow it when my parents hosted parties and he’d play Herb Albert songs. He also liked to drink bourbon so I’d have to do some cleaning and liberal use of the spit valve so I wouldn’t blow bourbon breath on my bandmates later. Next I switched to slide trombone. If you like jazz it’s awesome. When I see a concert like Preservation Hall Jazz Band I always focus on the trombone player.


Next I switched to bass clarinet. Not sure why… I think our music teacher just needed one to fill out the band. This is another favorite due to the unique sound. I had fun in marching band and we’d walk around the streets surrounding the school for practice. I liked to learn how to make weird squeaking and honking noises to crack jokes. After that I tried my sister’s soprano clarinet and that was fun but they don’t sound nearly as cool a bass clarinet. Next up was my brother’s alto saxophone… I never had proper training on it and just played by feel. I didn’t spend too much time on it since I was soon to move on to guitars.


I was fortunate to make friends with a local garage band that had a practice space in the basement of a house. I asked one of my friends if he could teach me how to play electric guitar and he was game. However once we started he saw I was having trouble because my fingers are long. So we switched to the bass guitar and I was hooked. I ended up being one of the bass players in that band and we even made a demo tape in a professional studio. I played in a couple other bands too and even did a couple shows at Iowa City’s venue Gabe’s Oasis and other venues. I still have a couple basses and plan to eventually record some tracks combined with the Pocket Piano perhaps. Next I was determined to learn electric guitar. Nothing fancy, just basic 3 chord rock. I think I achieved my goal but never advanced to playing solos and that sort of thing.


While I was in bands as a bass player I needed to observe the drummer at all times to keep the foundation solid. Along the way I wanted to play the drums myself so taking advantage of the band’s downtime I’d noodle away. Playing drums is like walking and chewing gum at the same time, yadda yadda, so the key was to start with slow tempo and keep things simple. Once I got the hang of it I was probably qualified to play for a decent garage band.


I’ve played a fretless bass in the past and never loved the sound, but I also noodled with a friend’s cello. Matt Haimovitz is so awesome so I’d love to try cello again someday.


Singing is hard for me but like anything else, with training you improve. It was always hard for me to sing and play an instrument at the same time. I have had some well received karaoke performances however.


One of my Dad’s principles was “never stop learning”. That may be why I kept trying new instruments. I also took a music theory course in college which really, really enforced the idea that math and music are related very closely. So if you have a child who likes computer science and things like that, encourage them to learn how to play music. If you google “math and music” there’s a lot of good reading out there.

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