How Does a Love For Heavy Music Embolden a Love For Mathematics?

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Brazil’s Sepultura: Fourth Decade of Existence

Listening to heavy music for 40 years has brought an unquantifiable happiness to my life, and yp many of my friends as well. In recent years, there have been studies and articles on what effect this has had on people like me, who are older and have families. Here are titles of some of them.

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Some of this might be a shock to many of you maybe even my own admission of listening to this kind of music(still listening to it at 56) is a bit of a revelation. But, for the tribe — that collectivism/unity is an important part of being blissed out — none of this is a surprise. But, this article is not about that…well not directly.

This article is about exploring how a devotion/passion for all things loud/fast facilitates a journey of learning mathematics that is oddly — or maybe not — almost identical.

Back in early March of 2020, I connected on Twitter with Nikki Rohlfing, a mathematics teacher from the UK. His resume was both simple and delightfully complex — he was a heavy metal roadie before he became a teacher of higher level math(s) in York.

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We finally got around to having a video chat this past week. There was no agenda other than we were going to talk about music and math. After we talked for close to an hour, we both started reflecting on the connections of these two passions. While we were doing this, I am was thinking of other math educators I know who love geeking out with math and metal. Sure enough, the correlation started to have some key markers. My friends who like metal OR math are generally some of the kindest and happiest people I have met in my life. So, it might make sense that those who have a Venn diagram that shows intersection between these two things would be giddy on almost a sinful level. Guilty as charged. Below are some thoughts from my brothers and sisters who fly freak flag of metal and mathematics.

When I watch some of the classic European Bands that I grew up and still love (Maiden, Priest, Scorpions) they kicked ass. The music got the audience fired up as they brought a tremendous stage presence. But they fed off the crowd. I hope my energy in the classroom can get the students fired up which will in-turn fire me up. — There is a difference between US and non-US metal groups, in their sound, their looks. Kinda like there is a difference in the approach to math here in the States vs elsewhere. I feel like we don’t get the historical connections where mathematicians in other cultures do. — I consider myself a closet metal fan. Sometimes I don’t want to admit that I like metal. Likewise, it is sometimes not accepted to admit that we like math. — Metal is often dirty and messy, just like my approach to mathematics. One look at my notebooks and whiteboard work will tell you that.

Mark Kaercher, Milken National Educator & NYS Master Teacher Emeritus

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What about the complexity of the music itself?

Lihanna Boditoro, Mathematics Teacher, Philadelphia

My friend Matt Haber — my first metal and math friend — shared many of his spontaneous and unbridled thoughts through Facebook Messenger. He has also written for NCTM.

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Well, as a child I was classically trained. There is so much math in music theory. When I taught fractions, it was the same as musical notation, rests, time signatures. As a guitarist, when I follow the drummer, it’s all math.

I have been around hard rock and metal all my life. I started young. It’s the people’s will. That’s why it never goes away. The plethora of people you meet is wild.

I love how everyone who listens to hard rock, REALLY LOVES the music. Not just like, but love. I don’t see that with other genres.

Matt Haber, Founder of Problem Solved!

I took all these conversations and marinated them with my own intersecting travels of heavy music and heavy mathematics. Here are the conclusions I came up with.

  1. Openness, Fearlessness, and Boundlessness

Listening to music which challenges our most extreme emotions of joy, sorrow, and anger, has been a catalyst of listening to every genre and time period of music. Below is how iTunes categorizes my library of 13000 songs — all which I bought(mostly CD’s).

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Most metal fans I know listen to a variety of music as a result of the large landscape of emotions they experience when listening to bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, etc. Also, we keep looking and listening for new sounds and bands. We are open to anything and everything.

This exact mindset happens in mathematics. We love to explore and continue to explore mathematics that goes beyond the domain of K to 12. Everything that I have learned in the realm of math history/storytelling has been beyond the mainstream ideas of mathematics found in education. The rebellious nature found in the tribes of heavy music become a foundation for taking that anti-establishment ethos everywhere — including world of math education.

2. Colorful Micro and Macro Prisms

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When Nikki and I were talking about music, we discussed everything from the micro details like riffs/down tuning in songs to whole album catalogues of bands to the whole experience of seeing live metal shows with kindred spirits.

When Nikki and I were talking about mathematics, we discussed micro details in problem solving — key algebraic and geometric insights which illuminate paths for solutions — to some of our favorite math problems in algebra and calculus to the broader joy and passion that mathematics brings in our lives.

Those conversations happened organically and enthusiastically.

3. Collectivism, Loyalty, and Equity

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The mathematics communities that I am a part of are very tightly knit. How could they not be, weaving in the joys of math and teaching. As someone who has seen hundreds of hard rock/heavy metal shows over the last four decades, the idea of collectivism and the importance of gathering together to share the music is quite easily the most life affirming output. No other genre of music comes close to the tight-knit and welcoming vibes. Being different is cool.

I don’t have long hair. I don’t have tattoos. I don’t have piercings. But, I feel often more at home with my friends who look like bikers. We are bonding because of what we believe in, and not what we look like. I have never seen a wider array of people than at metal concerts.

Now, I just wish I could find a luminary role model who not only loves metal and math, but also exemplifies the humanism/kindness that bleeds out unapologetically with the pairing of them. Luckily, we do. Her name is Liv Boeree. Physicist, Professional Poker Player, TEDx Speaker, Heavy Metal Guitarist, Nature Lover, and Philanthropist.

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Paying Homage to the Phoenix Number and Metallica
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Both metal and math have had their moments of being shunned or ridiculed by society. I guess we just doubled-down on being geeks. The somewhat ironic twist is that we are some of the happiest, most giving, and passionate people.

My love for heavy music came before my love for mathematics. And, looking back, looking now in the present, and looking forward to the future, my life has been immeasurably bettered by my love for both — they are thankfully, irreversibly tattooed to me now.

My thirst for new music and new mathematics continues…

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon

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