Math & Music Find Harmony in New Course

Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Image shows Drs. Rickert and Chapman. Rickert is teaching online. Chapman's area of the photo includes two electric keyboards.

David Chapman’s interest in music history has combined with John Rickert’s love of number theory to form a strong faculty team that has team-taught a new Math and Music course this spring academic quarter.

Teaching any new course can be quite a challenge, but adjusting to teaching in the online environment needed even more teamwork for mathematics professor John Rickert and music professor David Chapman while teaching a Math and Music course for the first time this spring.

The class explored how understanding the basics of concepts within math and music could foster a better appreciation for both areas.

Rickert, a veteran mathematics professor, has always been interested in music. He has lent his musical talents to several choirs throughout the community, attended Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra performances, and enjoyed musical events at Rose-Hulman, Indiana State University, and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. He specializes in number theory and simultaneous linear approximations and regularly teaches classes on campus in calculus and discrete mathematics.

Meanwhile, Chapman is a music historian with particular interests in music theory. He encourages Rose-Hulman students to explore the creative, expressive, and intellectual sides of music as part of their science, engineering, and math educations.

“Musical sound can be analyzed and manipulated mathematically, whether describing frequencies of pitch or calculating rhythmic values or identifying mathematical processes at work in creativity and composition,” says Chapman, the only music professor within the institute’s humanities, social sciences and the arts faculty.

Later, he adds, “There is a branch of music theory that attempts to grapple with music in a quantitative way. I have long suspected that our students might find that approach especially resonant with their other studies. We knew that Rose students tend to be both mathematically and musically inclined and that they might find this course appealing.”

They were right. The course’s 25-student roster filled quickly with students majoring in a variety of academic majors, including computer science, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

The professors have alternated course instruction throughout the 10-week academic quarter. Rickert uses a handy whiteboard while lecturing about a variety of math topics, while Chapman takes to two keyboards, two laptops and a third computer monitor in his home studio to highlight musical topics. In their free time, they answer students’ questions, record lectures, and encourage students to complete a term-long project – some in small groups, some individually – on topics of their interest. There also have been a few open-book, open-note exams where students are assessed on their ability to put new course concepts into practice.

“The class covers many abstract concepts, and to apply those concepts to music we rely heavily on the fact that all our students have most of a Rose-Hulman math education and at least some experience with music,” states Rickert.

Chapman says, “We benefitted from leaving a great deal of flexibility in our timeline and lesson plans, which helped us when we had to adapt the course to the new schedule and online environment. The most rewarding aspect of the course is seeing students expand on the topics we have discussed, coming up with new solutions to problems, finding new applications for concepts introduced and making connections we had not initially considered. John and I have observed that many of them are better musicians than their math professor and better mathematicians than their music professor. They may surpass us both in the end. We certainly hope that will be true.”