Larry Lesser, The Mathemusician, Biographical Information


Math Professor Larry Lesser finds:

Fighting the negativity towards mathematics still too socially acceptable in popular culture (reflected by songs such as “Math Suks” from the 1999 Jimmy Buffet album or by dolls that say "math class is tough"), Larry Lesser (an Associate Professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at El Paso) motivates teachers and students by merging two of his great loves -- mathematics and music. 

He presented the first songs-in-math-class workshop the annual teacher institute of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum has had, gave the first artists-in-the-classroom workshop at the International Folk Alliance Conference, and was featured in a story in Australia's largest-selling newspaper and interviewed on newstalk FM radio stations from El Paso to Jamaica!  From Anaheim to Atlanta, he has been a featured conference presenter. He has done full-length opening plenary sessions to kick off conferences for audiences ranging from mathematicians (e.g., the opening banquet session at the annual national summer meeting of the Mathematical Association of America; see p.14 of Aug/Sept 2008 FOCUS) to mathematics teachers (e.g., an SRO audience of 800+ at the 2009 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics regional conference in Nashville). Yet another type of audience was reached by Lesser’s short performance to kick off the 2009 United States Conference on Teaching Statistics, which earned Lesser the USCOTS “Entertainer of the Year” award!

Nationally published as a mathematics educator and songwriter (as well as textbook author, poet, and music journalist), Lesser has ample qualifications to share links between math, music and song.  While getting his mathematics BA, Lesser began songwriting and taking music classes (his only straight-A subject in college!), and helped initiate a for-credit songwriting course at Rice University.  While getting a masters in statistics and PhD in mathematics education, Lesser was VP of the Austin Songwriters’ Group, took private music lessons and Austin Community College music business courses, taught adult education courses in songwriting at the University of Texas, enjoyed some success with his contemporary folk songs (including regional awards, gigs and positive media reviews), such as his song “Earthwoman” recorded on an album by the acoustic trio Folkus (and played on Progressive/Triple A station KGSR-FM and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM).  More recently, his co-written song “What We’ll Bring” was recorded on the 2007 album Pray for the Peace by the national touring band Sababa and, more recently, his “Healing Song” was recorded on the album Songs of Ascent by coloratura soprano and Midwest Flawless recording artist Ellen M. Wilson and featured in NPR radio station interviews. 

While Lesser had long appreciated the mathematical structures and patterns in the songs he was writing, he was beginning to explore how music might make the mathematics he was teaching more memorable, accessible and exciting for his students, especially for those who did not feel positive connections with mathematics.

After taking his guitar and trying out his talents in his classrooms, Lesser was encouraged to take it further, continuing to create, adapt and refine an accessible collection of demonstrations of connections between mathematical and musical concepts.  A few examples of math & music connections Lesser explores (as can most teachers) include:  connections between notions of number theory and music theory, mathematical models of how a chime's or string's pitch varies with its length, how the sound of two notes relates to the ratio of their frequencies,  how mathematics guides the building and playing of musical instruments, how patterns generate and illuminate rhythms and sequences of notes and chords, how transformations of a melody parallel transformations in mathematics, and other ways mathematics is used (implicitly or explicitly) by composers.  He published a letter on the mathematics of locating harmonic notes on a guitar string in the Sept. 2004 Acoustic Guitar.

Not content with making connections only with existing music, Larry also began writing a creative and playful repertoire of well-crafted content-rich math songs (inspired by the work of songwriters such as Tom Lehrer, who, like Larry, has published lyrics in both academic and non-academic publications) -- some stand-alone originals (e.g., “Numbers Man”, “Statistician's BLUEs”, “The Day Math Teachers Took Over the World”) and others (e.g., “American Pi”, “Hotel Infinity”, “The Gambler”, “We Will Graph You!”) that can be sung to the tune of hit songs à la “Weird Al” Yankovic.   (Lesser’s choices of hit songs to parody include country, pop, folk and rock recording artists such as:  John Mayer, Madonna, the Eagles, Queen, Kool & the Gang, Bette Midler, Bee Gees, Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, Janis Ian, Three Dog Night, The Beatles, Ricky Martin, Don McLean, Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Billy Joel, Suzanne Vega, Gloria Gaynor, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon.  While Lesser has added to the already massive math song repertoire for elementary school, he has had the largest impact on the much thinner repertoire for middle school and high school (a time when attitude and success in math greatly affect future career and college prospects).  While the more conventional demands of his work as a mathematics educator have kept him too busy so far to fulfill requests for a “math song CD”, dozens of his math lyrics have appeared in international/national publications (e.g., Mathematics Teacher, Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, Amstat News, Noticias de TODOS, SABES Problem Solver, Teaching Statistics, STATS, Journal of Irreproducible Results, and  Humanistic Mathematics Network Journal, and books such as  The Pea and the Sun: A Mathematical Paradox, and Pi: A Biography of the World’s Most Mysterious Number, and the M.U.S.I.C. sourcebook Learning From Lyrics  alongside lyrics by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young and Sting),  which have generated several republication requests and offers for a larger book project.  

Although the high quality of Lesser's lyrics reflect his substantial proficiencies in both mathematics education and songwriting (it's not easy rhyming words like parabola!), he maintains that all have the ability and deserve the opportunity to write their own songs or at least couplets of verse/rap, and he has encountered many enjoyable examples written by teachers and by students.  He published a letter about educational songwriting in the December 2005 issue of Physics Today.

To strengthen his ideas (by the process of peer-review) and spread them to the widest audiences, he wrote pioneering full-length teacher-friendly interdisciplinary articles (e.g., "Sum of Songs: Making Mathematics Less Monotone!" in the May 2000 issue of Mathematics Teacher and "Musical Means: Using Songs in Teaching Statistics" in the Autumn 2001 Teaching Statistics) that show how raps and songs can be used to motivate students in the mathematics classroom, offering (even those with minimal musicianship) numerous activities, tips, and examples.  Following his mu's, Lesser's Teaching Statistics article uses songs for generating descriptive statistics, conducting hypothesis tests, analyzing lyrics (for specific terms and global themes), analyzing data, etc., and he published an article of additional original statistics lyrics in the Winter 2002 STATS.   His Mathematics Teacher article offers song-based problem solving, critical thinking and enrichment activities, and includes several of his highly original math lyrics such as “American Pi”, which can be sung to the tune of the song “American Pie” (a #1 hit for Don McLean in 1972 and a Top-30 hit for Madonna in 2000).  Teachers can utilize the new lyric's chorus (see top of the page) as a mnemonic for the first 6 significant figures of pi and may also utilize each line of the verses for a rich exploration of content and pi's very human history.   Other lyrics illuminate the process of doing mathematics (e.g., “Fifty Ways to Work a Problem”; see top of the page) or help students recall specific procedures (e.g., “We Will Graph You!”).  Published by NCTM, Mathematics Teacher is one of the world's most widely read mathematics education journals (circulation is 50,000 mathematics instructors of students in grades 8 through college).  Lesser's article was selected as the article from the print issue to appear (from May 2000 – Dec. 2001) on the journal's website and he was pleasantly startled that the article generated more response within 2 months than he had ever received from his previous dozen publications combined!  While thousands of juried articles have been written on math-and-music connections (e.g., see O’Keeffe’s bibliography in the April 1972 Mathematics Teacher), there were not any besides Lesser's as specifically and comprehensively on the use of songs in the mathematics/statistics classroom. 

In his classroom presentations (ranging from a math-song-of-the-month to a full module) from elementary school to college, Lesser has found many benefits beyond just plain fun and building community, such as:   motivation, memory aids, meeting mathematics education standards (especially NCTM Standard #9, though Larry's songs address the others, too!), meeting music education standards (especially MENC Standard #8), multiple learning styles and intelligences (especially musical/rhythmic), reducing math phobia, and mashing stereotypes (about math, math class and maybe even mild-mannered math teachers!).   Lesser hopes his songs spark interest as did Billy Joel’s 1989 hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for many history classrooms.  Lesser explains, "I'm a songwriter at heart who happens to find the processes and patterns of mathematics fascinating and worthy of songs.  It's a nice alternative to singing about less-evolved pursuits.  While math-and-music is lots of fun, it's also part of a serious responsibility I feel to connect with all students and help them towards mathematical literacy and empowerment in our increasingly information-based society."  As his alter ego, “The Mathemusician”, Lesser puts his microphone where his mouth is, resurrecting the musical passion from his student days to perform with a style that might be described as a mixture of Paul Simon, Weird Al Yankovic, and Bill Nye the Science Guy (hmmm.... is that as catchy as “Larry Lesser the Math Professor”?).

Professor Lesser enjoys parallels between teaching and performing as he also shares his enthusiasm with colleagues in inservice workshops and conferences, from local to national, which have received broad-based praise and media coverage (such as a feature story in 2002 in Australia's largest-selling newspaper).  Also, Lesser has performed math songs during live radio appearances – such as “Today with Beverley Anderson Manley” on Kingston, Jamaica 101.9 FM, “State of the Arts with Mónica Gómez (on KTEP 88.5 FM, El Paso), and “Math Medley” (KFNX-AM, WALE-AM,, This makes Larry one of the very few who has had both "regular songs" and a "math song" played on radio!  Math-and-music is not the first time his creative teaching has drawn attention:  in 1993, a University of Texas adult education course he designed and taught on the psychology and probability underlying the then-new Texas Lottery generated coverage by several Texas newspapers, the AP wire service and CNN Headline News.  Larry's interdisciplinary endeavors aided his being selected to serve as the 2001 Arthur M. Gignilliat, Jr. Professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University and as a 2005-2006 IMPACT Seminar Fellow at The University of Texas at El Paso.   Larry has also recently published mathematics education poetry (e.g., “Denominator” in Journal of the Association of Mexican American Educators, and mathematics poetry (e.g.,  “Confounded” in The Mathematical Intelligencer,



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