Scientists Convert Music To Math

> Apr 18 2008

Scientists Convert Music To Math
By Brock ThiessenThere’s no denying music has its nerdy side, just look at Brian Eno, for example. But in a new study, researchers have taken music’s dork factor to the extreme. In efforts to draw connections between music and mathematics, a team of musical experts concluded this week that music has geometry, and discovered a new way of reducing musical works to their mathematical essence, the Telegraph newspaper reports.

Following Pythagoras’s 2,000-year-old discovery that musical intervals could be described using ratios, a trio of music professors — Dmitri Tymoczko at Princeton University, Clifton Callender at Florida State University and Ian Quinn at Yale University — have devised what they call "geometrical music theory,” which, in a recently published study in the journal Science, suggests they can turn music into shapes.

"To me, the most satisfying aspect of this research is that we can now see that there is a logical structure linking many, many different musical concepts,” Tymoczko told the Telegraph. "To some extent, we can represent the history of music as a long process of exploring different symmetries and different geometries.”

However, Tymoczko did say the research has its limitations. "Our methods are not so great at distinguishing Aerosmith from the Rolling Stones,” he said. "But they might allow you to visualize some of the differences between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Paul McCartney's tunes tend to look more traditional, John Lennon's tunes tend to be a little more ‘rock’ — violating more of the traditional rules. And [our methods] certainly help you understand more deeply how classical music relates to rock or is different from atonal music.”

And while you perhaps didn’t need scientists to tell you Lennon was more rockin’ than McCartney, the researchers’ method of assigning mathematical structures to families of chords, rhythms and scales does help them gain a better grasp of music’s nature and evolution as a whole.

"The whole point of making these geometric spaces is that, at the end of the day, it helps you understand music better,” Tymoczko said. "Having a powerful set of tools for conceptualizing music allows you to do all sorts of things you hadn't done before. You could create new kinds of musical instruments or new kinds of toys. You could create new kinds of visualization tools — imagine going to a classical music concert where the music was being translated visually. We could change the way we educate musicians. There are lots of practical consequences that could follow from these ideas."
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