SparkNotes Blog

For Those About To (Math) Rock

I know what you’re thinking. Math does a lot of things. Like periodically ruin your life. One thing it does not do is rock. So what in the world is “math rock”?

Is it what mathletes listen to on their iPods to psych themselves up for a big meet? Or maybe it’s some lame attempt by your teacher to introduce difficult calculus concepts with a song he wrote all by himself; perhaps “My Infinitesimal Heart” or “Smooth Linear Operator.” (Dear God, he’s pulling out a Les Paul and passing out lyric sheets, isn’t he? This is not the learning I signed up for.)

For those of you who aren’t yet in the musical know, this dubious-sounding genre is actually hugely popular.

Though few seem to agree on the origin of the term, “math rock” is loosely defined as experimental indie rock that eschews a 4/4 meter for more complicated time signatures, includes dissonant chords and atypical melodies, and offers head-scratcher arrangements. Some say it is the kind of music that can only be appreciated with a calculator.

Up-and-coming bands in the math rock scene typically play all-ages shows (or even house parties) when they tour, selling DIY recordings to a particularly loyal and faithful young fanbase. If you’re planning an end-of-year school concert for May or June, you might want to consider a math rock outfit. (No, your math teacher can’t “open” for them, and frankly I wish he’d stop asking.)

It can be hard to pin down just who belongs in this genre, but here are some major names of math rock.

This dark, haunting Louisville group flourished in the late-80s (though they made a comeback in 2005 and 2007). Namedrop Slint to impress your cool thirty-ish uncle with the amazing record collection.

Perhaps the most popular of current math rock purveyors. Famous for its angular melodies. And yes, I did notice that sounded a little math-y.

The Dillinger Escape Plan
This is, if you will, AP math rock. Very experimental, decidedly jazz-influenced, heavy, relentless, and just a little bit punk. In high school, these guys probably never showed their work—but passed anyway.

Minus The Bear
A math rock band that actually manages to write catchy hooks. A+.

Mute Math
Ok, technically not math rock. But it gives us an excuse to link to this video, which the band filmed playing backwards. This looks way harder than calculus.

Considered by many to be proto-math-rock. Plus, their early-80s video for “Subdivisions” (also sounds math-y!) features what appears to be a misunderstood mathlete (is there any other kind?).

An additional bonus to listening to Rush: the heady lyrics, most of which seem to reference Ayn Rand and Objectivist theory. Could help with that scholarship essay you’ve been working on.

Who’s your favorite math rock band?