Most of you may have heard about the unique association between math and music at some point. Yet, some of you may need clarification on the title because you may believe that math and music are two completely separate academic disciplines.
Math and music have a longstanding history that reaches back to ancient Greece.1 This mathematical-musical relationship has existed for at least 2000 years and has been observed across numerous cultures and civilizations. Innumerable thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle, and philosophers and mathematicians like Pythagoras and Leibniz, have emphasized the relationship between music and math.1,2
This article will chronicle the life and achievements of one such outstanding mathematician, singer, songwriter, and satirist—Tom Lehrer—who combined these two genres so brilliantly.
Who is Tom Lehrer?
Do you remember the periodic table and the elements of the periodic table? What about the well-known song “The Elements“? This novel approach to delivering a standard chemistry class was developed by none other than Lehrer. The widely known song “The Elements” by musicians and scientists alike is just one example of Lehrer’s influential corpus of work.3,4
Tom Lehrer, born in New York in 1928, worked as a performing artist for around 25 years, from 1945 to 1970. Most of his funny satirical songs, many of which he recorded, are still accessible now on various online platforms, which are what made him most famous. Lehrer was a very skilled mathematician from Harvard, but his ability to write satirical songs has earned him a special status as a mathematician, musician, and satirist.4,5
Lehrer began studying classical piano at the age of 7. However, he soon developed a liking for modern music, studying under a piano instructor specializing in popular music and penning show tunes. Lehrer was considered a child prodigy in school and enrolled in college when he was 15. At 18, Lehrer graduated with a BA in math from Harvard, followed by an MA the following year. He was also admitted to Phi Beta Kappa, the country’s oldest and most renowned academic honor society. Lehrer worked at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory as a researcher for several years while pursuing a doctoral degree at Harvard. In 2000, Lehrer gave an interview where he outlined how the two seemingly different disciplines are interconnected. He asserted, “The logical mind, the precision, is the same involved in math as in lyrics.” 5,6
Tom Lehrer wasn’t a conventional mathematician, despite being an extraordinary one. Instead of creating a new theory or field of math, he had an idea that changed how math was taught. He is likewise not well known for his contributions to math but rather for the outstanding songs he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s.7
His musical contributions to math included songs he wrote that changed how math and other academic topics were taught in classrooms around the globe. “That’s Mathematics” and “New Math” are two of his most well-known songs on math. “That’s Mathematics” described various applications of math, while “New Math” contrasted an old with a new approach to teaching math.7,8
He started writing comedic tunes to amuse and entertain his pals while he was a math student at Harvard University. A satirical performance called The Physical Revue, named after the U.S. publication at the time known as “Physical Review,” helped Lehrer continue his musical career at Harvard. Despite radio stations’ refusal to air his controversial material, he started recording in 1953, and word of mouth helped Lehrer’s reputation grow. When Princess Margaret gave Lehrer her royal approval, which won him the BBC’s support, Lehrer achieved great renown.3,6,9
In the early 1970s, Lehrer began devoting the majority of his time to music theater and math teaching. He taught at MIT and Harvard before joining the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1972. There, he instructed liberal arts majors in an introductory course titled “The Nature of Mathematics.” He also taught a musical theater course there.3,4
With 37 songs, his entire body of work was formally finished, and they connect with both seasoned academics and rebellious teenagers. Thus, Lehrer’s parodies and satirical songs will always rank among the most innovative and elegant ones in math.10
What a fascinating man, wasn’t he? You can read more interesting posts on math personalities and about math and coding at BYJU’S FutureSchool Blog.
Shah, S. (2010). MATH30000, 3 rd Year Project An Exploration of ! Relation”ip Between Ma#ematics and Music. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from http://eprints.ma.man.ac.uk/1548/1/cov
Archibald, R. C. (1924). Mathematicians and Music. The American Mathematical Monthly, 31(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.2307/2298868 (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2298868?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03922-x
The mathematical and musical life of Tom Lehrer | by Oxford Academic | History Uncut | Medium. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from