
Math
Professor Larry Lesser finds:
MATH + MUSIC = MORE MOTIVATION
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 songsinmathclass
workshop the annual
teacher institute of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum has
had, gave the first artistsintheclassroom workshop at the International
Folk Alliance Conference, and was featured in a story in Australia's
largestselling 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 fulllength 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 straightA subject in
college!), and helped initiate a forcredit 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 KGSRFM and NPRaffiliate
KUTFM). More recently, his cowritten
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 wellcrafted contentrich math songs (inspired by the work of songwriters
such as Tom Lehrer, who, like Larry, has published lyrics in both academic
and nonacademic publications)  some standalone 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 peerreview) and spread them to the widest
audiences, he wrote pioneering fulllength teacherfriendly 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 songbased 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 Top30 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 mathandmusic 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 mathsongofthemonth 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 mildmannered 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 lessevolved pursuits. While
mathandmusic 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 informationbased 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 broadbased praise and media coverage
(such as a feature story in 2002 in Australia's largestselling 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” (KFNXAM, WALEAM, www.renaissanceradio.com, www.webct.com). This makes Larry one of the very few who
has had both "regular songs" and a "math song" played on
radio! Mathandmusic 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 thennew
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 20052006
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, http://amaejournal.wordpress.com/) and mathematics poetry (e.g., “Confounded” in The Mathematical Intelligencer, http://www.springerlink.com/content/387514r978586377/fulltext.pdf).
