Ph.D. student looks to dial down 'math anxiety' with his MuSciQ

Alan Tyson II poses for a picture.View print quality image
Alan Tyson II, a music and arts technology Ph.D. student, is developing MuSciQ, a digital application to help children reduce "math anxiety" through music. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Mathematics fuels music, from counting beats to the hierarchy of notes.

Play that in reverse, and music can help with math. Hip-hop, country and even death metal could combat "math anxiety," according to Alan Tyson II, a music and arts technology Ph.D. student. An accomplished musician with a passion for mathematics education, Tyson is deep into his latest research project, MuSciQ, a methodology and future digital app that breaks down songs, or parts of songs, through math techniques.

Alan Tyson II transcribes the mathematics behind the music on a board.View print quality image
"Music and math coincide," Tyson said. "They are one and the same." Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

"My research focus is a musical intervention for math anxiety," Tyson said. "It's also to promote math achievement in the academic setting."

In Tyson's findings, the fear and apprehension toward math first appears as early as elementary school but can follow into adulthood in the form of balancing the family budget or studying for the GRE to get into graduate school.

Using the digital audio workstation Reason as his canvas, Tyson imports a song and then breaks down each part to re-create the tune by applying numbers to the beats and notes in a scale. MuSciQ utilizes sounds within Reason for each track to re-create the song. The strong bass line in "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, for example, was still recognizable after the summer hit was dissected through MuSciQ. The structure and notes are still there, but the arsenal of sounds, which include that classic 808 bass kick, re-created the song. It's a little bit of musical Mad Libs that's powered by math.

Tyson aimed MuSciQ at elementary school students.

"I want music to be taught while math is being taught simultaneously," he said. "Music and math coincide. They are one and the same."

Behind the MuSciQ

Tyson grew up playing music at church as well as in youth jazz orchestras in Columbus, Ohio. Saxophone was his first instrument, but he also knows his way around a piano and other keyboards. As part of a dual-degree program with Morehouse College and IUPUI, Tyson earned undergraduate degrees in general science and music and arts technology. He stayed with the department, earning his master's degree in 2016.

During his IUPUI tenure, Tyson collaborated with professor of music technology Scott Deal on a beta software application called Artsmesh, a program that helps facilitate live multi-city networked music performance. He then assisted Debra Burns, chair of the Department of Music and Arts Technology, on a music imagery project with cancer patients.

"I grew up loving math and science while playing music," Tyson explained. "I've always been trying to find ways to integrate math and music because I could see the innate relationships between the two."

Summer debut

Tyson unveiled MuSciQ to students from the Girls STEM Summer Institute. The girls got to transform songs while counting along to beats and notes, dissecting the rhythmic and melodic components of their favorite songs.

They were able to derive scale patterns and chords while counting out the notes using arithmetic. Soon, they were transcribing their favorite songs using algebraic thinking. Each note gets a number and corresponding sound, like plugging in a variable and being able to substitute a number for that variable.

"Once they get the rhythm down, we start talking about musical intervals," Tyson said. "If the song is in the B major scale, we derive numbers to the scale pattern, put it all together and play the song."

Tyson plans on taking MuSciQ on the road. The tour starts in the spring at Spring Mill Elementary School and George Buck School 94. He also hopes to expand his future app to other sciences, like physics.

"What I'm finding is that the students who claim to dislike math are willing to persevere to get to the end goal of learning the song," Tyson revealed. "There's definitely a motivational factor that's in play. There's a feeling of accomplishment in a lot of the students. It's always rewarding to see that."