Math and the Arts: Celebrating Black History Month

February 21, 2024

Math and the arts are two subjects that show how talented humans can be. With math, we can figure out the exact calculations needed to send a satellite into space or even send a person up there. On the other hand, art lets us dive deep into the emotions and amazing beauty of human expression. Some believe math and art are completely different because math is all about logic, while art is about creativity. 

However, thinking this way can be limiting and prevent us from fully understanding what humans are capable of. In reality, math and art are connected and have essential roles in shaping different parts of our lives. Cooking, music, and other types of art all use math and art principles to create the exciting culture we have today. That’s why it’s important to integrate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) in our society, especially in education. When we combine these five subjects, we can make progress in the economy and society, like improving jobs and keeping our country safe.

Engaging in different forms of art, such as painting, music, theater, or dance, can have a significant impact on a student’s personal growth. Students can discover and express their creativity and emotions in distinctive ways through artistic outlets. Engaging in these activities also aids in developing crucial skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and effective communication. By immersing themselves in the arts, students improve their artistic talents and cultivate valuable life skills that can positively impact different areas of their lives.

This year, Black History Month celebrates the arts and its role as a “platform for social justice.” So, let’s take a moment to explore the artistic contributions made by Black Americans and understand their cultural importance. We’ll also delve into the connection between art and math, highlighting how math plays a significant role in creativity.

Math and the Arts: The blues and hip-hop

Math plays a significant role in music, and scales and chord progressions are prime examples of this connection. Scales are a way to organize musical notes based on their pitch, using frequency ratios or intervals. These ratios or intervals help determine the order in which the notes are played. Chords are when several notes are played together on an instrument. Musicians use scales and chords to create captivating melodies that involve math in the creative process.

The blues

One genre of music that showcases this blend is the blues, which originated in the Deep South during the 1860s by enslaved Africans. The blues is known for its storytelling lyrics and the repetitive use of the bass. The blues was like a special language that Black Americans used to talk about the unfair treatment they faced. It was a way for them to show the world what they were going through and how it made them feel. The blues helped them connect with their stories and experiences. It was a powerful expression that gave them a voice when they felt they didn’t have one.

The blues scale is a musical sequence of six common musical notes used in blues, rock, and country genres. This scale includes an extra note, the blue note, to the pentatonic scale. This blue note is what grants the blues scale its recognizable bluesy sound.

Hip Hop

Hip-hop is a form of stylized rhythmic music created in the late 1970s by young black immigrants in the Bronx, NY, most notably DJ Kool Herc. DJs at block parties played rhythmic breaks taken from popular songs, while artists would sing or rap in harmony with the beat. This beat is called an instrumental. Hip-hop has since transformed into the worldwide sensation it is now. It includes various forms of expression, such as dance, visual art, and even technology. Math and hip-hop may appear unrelated at first. However, the genre includes math concepts to produce some of the trendiest songs in modern music.

Math plays a crucial role in the music of DobleFlo, a hip-hop duo based in NYC. They rely on it for various aspects, such as rhyming, composition, and engineering. Math allows them to pursue their artistic passion and showcase their music. “Math is really fundamental when it comes to music, whether it’s using it in drum patterns, beats, finding tempo, or even when I’m writing rhymes, counting, using math or rhyme schemes,” shares the rap duo.

Math and the Arts: Black American Cuisine

Chefs use math extensively in their cooking. Whether it’s adhering to a recipe or adjusting it to serve a larger crowd, math plays a crucial role. When following a recipe, you must have a good grasp of math to measure ingredients. For example, if a recipe serves four people but you are having a party for eight, you must know how to convert measurements, such as going from a 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup. Getting the measurements right makes a difference in how the meal turns out.

Science and art can help us understand how ingredients mix to make tasty dishes. However, what tastes good to one person may not be enjoyed by everyone. Some of the most delicious food combinations and flavors happen by chance and become highly sought after. Food critics and social media influencers travel all over the world to try the most delicious meals. They show us the cultural impact of a place through its food and the creativity that can come from someone’s kitchen.

In the popular series “High on the Hog,” Chef and writer Stephen Satterfield explains how the food of the American South carries the most impactful influence of Black culture, all the way from Africa to Texas. When enslaved Blacks first came to America, they didn’t have anything with them. Sadly, they were treated as less than human by white Americans. As a result, they survived on leftovers like pig fat and other scraps to eat. Enslaved Black people used these ingredients to create delicious meals and introduce new cooking techniques that are still a big part of American culture. 

Math and the Arts: Literature

“A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns,” G.H. Hardy, a mathematician, once wrote. Literature, like math, is a process of creating patterns. Various forms of literature use math concepts to evoke powerful emotions. Literature can even transport its reader to alternate realms of the imagination. As Sarah Hart describes in her New York Times article, The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature, “mathematics and literature [are] part of the same quest — to understand the world and our place in it.” We notice the relationship between math and literature at a young age through nursery rhymes. “Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” “One Two, Buckle My Shoe,” and others include counting as part of the rhyming scheme. Nursery rhymes help to build one’s understanding of math and literacy concepts.

There are two beautiful benefits of the relationship between math and literature, shares blog writer Cindy West:

  • Books introduce math concepts in non-threatening ways and build interest.
  • Good stories make math come alive, and children find that math isn’t boring or inaccessible.

It’s interesting to think about how literature can help students grasp math concepts outside of studying math independently. So, why do we still keep them separate? According to a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2019, a staggering 84 percent of Black students struggled with math proficiency, while 85 percent faced challenges in reading skills. The report suggests that math and literacy might be connected, and literature can play a role in bridging the gap in math comprehension. This is especially significant for Black students, as reading stories that mirror their reality and experiences can awaken a hidden interest in math, establishing a unique and valuable connection between these two subjects.

In recent years, Black authors and stories of black youth have increased in helping Black students develop math and literacy skills. Below are a few to check out:

Math and art are connected and have essential roles in shaping different parts of our lives, such as cooking, music, and other types of art. Including science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) in our society, especially in education, can lead to economic and societal progress. Black History Month celebrates the arts and its role as a “platform for social justice.” We can also acknowledge the importance of math by shining a light on the creative achievements of Black Americans and the relationship between art and math, especially in music styles such as the blues and hip-hop. By uncovering the powerful combination of math and art, we can motivate a fresh wave of students and artists who can bring about positive change in our world.

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