Updated: Aug 31, 2022
Maths (or math if you’re reading this in North America) has never really been a great passion of mine. My brain works in a way that just goes blank whenever I try to do multiplication and I struggle to feel motivated to make a good go of it. I did, however, work out that in order to pass my GCSE maths exam, when you write down your workings (regardless of whether or not you know the answer) you get a mark, and I reckon that scribbling random numbers on every answer just about tipped me over the pass mark.
A great teacher makes a hell of a difference, and while I am sure my teachers did their very best, I went to school during a time where teachers had been in their careers for 30-plus years, and had got to a point where they just weren’t particularly inspired or inspiring. The best teachers were the PE staff and the English department, mainly because they at least showed a bit of passion for what they did, but probably because they weren't yet that long in the tooth. They were still quite young, in spite of all the collective knee operations they'd between them (not sure why I remember that particular detail).
Most of you will have never heard of Bob Dorough, especially if you live in the UK, but I guarantee that 99.9% of you will have heard his music somewhere. I only recently discovered him, and learned how he is almost single-handedly responsible for two American generations learning maths without realising that they were learning. Three is a Magic Number is his biggest and most well-known hit, known ubiquitously from the De la Soul sampler, used by the National Lottery in their advertising campaign and also covered by Embrace in 2000 (less well-known, but still not bad). Bob Dorough has an energy and enthusiasm for maths that I have never observed in another human, let alone any of my maths teachers. If any of them had had a fraction of Dorough's joy for maths, I might have been inspired to pay a little more attention to the subject. Don't read that as me blaming my teachers for my being shit at maths - I have to take the largest portion of responsibility for that.
Multiplication Rock is something that I think might have made me better at maths if I'd heard it before the age of 35, because it makes maths interesting. It certainly paved the way for programmes like Numberblocks (also #BTINTB) because it's a collection of music that makes maths fun and easy to remember and also creates champions out of would-be-static numbers.
Why is Multiplication Rock Better Than It Needs To Be?
I guess you have to have spent some time with children to fully-understand that to be "just about as good as you need to be" all you really need to do is set whatever you're doing to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. This is lazy, and would have been a bit of a cop-out if Dorough had decided to set the times tables to that tune. You'd be surprised at how often this cop-out occurs in children's entertainment though - look up Cocomelon for some annoying examples.
When you listen to the whole of the Multiplication Rock album, your ears are taken on a journey through the multiplication tables in a way that is designed to stick with you - you learn maths without realising it. Dorough is a Texan native which comes through in his accent and his general singing style, but he weaves different genres throughout the album so you don't get bored and the lyrics make up a series of beautiful love letters to mathematics. This is a guy who genuinely enjoyed maths and wanted to share his love for it, and this love really positively seeps through into my consciousness and makes me want to like maths, which is definitely an improvement on my school days.
What I also love is how this album doesn't treat children like they're stupid. Bob Dorough clearly wasn’t targeting adults when he wrote the album, but adults are able to listen to and enjoy it because the music quality is so high, varied and interesting. One might compare it to how adults also love to read Harry Potter. I do find grown adults playing Quidditch with broomsticks between their legs takes it to another level of strange though (but each to their own).
This album also has such a positive energy. Every time I listen to it, I'm reminded that there is still room to learn even though maths was a real chore for me at school. The melodies, the chords and the complex drum beats really make this album a work of genius, hence why he's been sampled so many times on Three is a Magic Number and it's surprising that he hasn't been sampled more. All of the tracks on this album are music of a quality that is good enough to top any chart - De la Soul proved that.
It was written in 1973 and was accompanied by a cartoon - again, giving children more content than they actually needed which simply added to the quality of their learning (going the extra mile and giving them more than the required minimum). This just wasn't expected in the '70s, and still isn't really that important to some producers of childrens' learning content (see Fireman Sam for examples of lazy writing which uses the same thread in every episode - it's always Norman either setting things alight, putting others in danger or doing something idiotic).
In Summary: You're never too old to learn your times tables
I tend to crack this album out on a long car journey because it makes for a great singalong, children don't realise that they're learning something new and the music is of such a high-quality that everyone can enjoy it without complaint. The only downside is that it's quite hard to find on CD in the UK and it is quite pricey. The best place to look is probably HERE on eBay, or, if you happen to be in the States or have some nice American friends, ask them.
Below is a video of Bob Dorough performing Three is a Magic Number aged circa 91. If that's not Better Than It Needs To Be, I'm not sure what is...