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Friday, April 25, 2008

Mapping the Math in Music

The figure shows how geometrical music theory represents four-note chord-types -- the collections of notes form a tetrahedron, with the colors indicating the spacing between the individual notes in a sequence. In the blue spheres, the notes are clustered, in the warmer colors, they are farther apart. The red ball at the top of the pyramid is the diminished seventh chord, a popular 19th-century chord. Near it are all the most familiar chords of Western music [Image: Dmitri Tymoczko]

More than 2000 years ago Pythagoras reportedly discovered that pleasing musical intervals could be described using simple ratios. And the so-called musica universalis or "music of the spheres" emerged in the Middle Ages as the philosophical idea that the proportions in the movements of the celestial bodies -- the sun, moon and planets -- could be viewed as a form of music, inaudible but perfectly harmonious.

Now, three music professors – Clifton Callender at Florida State University, Ian Quinn at Yale University and Dmitri Tymoczko at Princeton University -- have devised a new way of analyzing and categorizing music that takes advantage of the deep, complex mathematics they see enmeshed in its very fabric.

In a recent article in 'Science', the trio has outlined a method called "geometrical music theory" that translates the language of musical theory into that of contemporary geometry. They take sequences of notes, like chords, rhythms and scales, and categorize them so they can be grouped into "families." They have found a way to assign mathematical structure to these families, so they can then be represented by points in complex geometrical spaces, much the way "x" and "y" coordinates, in the simpler system of high school algebra, correspond to points on a two-dimensional plane. Different types of categorization produce different geometrical spaces, and reflect the different ways in which musicians over the centuries have understood music.

This achievement, they expect, will allow researchers to analyze and understand music in much deeper and more satisfying ways. The method, according to its authors, allows them to analyze and compare many kinds of Western (and perhaps some non-Western) music. (The method focuses on Western-style music because concepts like "chord" are not universal in all styles.) It also incorporates many past schemes by music theorists to render music into mathematical form."The music of the spheres isn't really a metaphor -- some musical spaces really are spheres," said Tymoczko, an assistant professor of music at Princeton. "The whole point of making these geometric spaces is that, at the end of the day, it helps you understand music better. Having a powerful set of tools for conceptualizing music allows you to do all sorts of things you hadn't done before."

The work represents a significant departure from other attempts to quantify music, according to Rachel Wells Hall of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. In an accompanying essay, she writes that their effort, "stands out both for the breadth of its musical implications and the depth of its mathematical content."

Reference
"Generalized Voice-Leading Spaces"
Clifton Callender, Ian Quinn, Dmitri Tymoczko,
Science, Vol. 320. no. 5874, pp. 346 - 348 (18 April 2008),
Abstract Link

[This posting is based on a press release by Princeton University]

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