Music theory has no axiomatic foundation in modern mathematics, yet the basis of musical sound can be described mathematically (in acoustics) and exhibits “a remarkable array of number properties”. Elements of music such as its form, rhythm and metre, the pitches of its notes and the tempo of its pulse can be related to the measurement of time and frequency, offering ready analogies in geometry.
The close relationship between music and mathematics has been studied since antiquity: a classical example is given by the Pythagorean School, to which discovery (the Pythagoreans assign to them mystical meanings), according to which the different tones of a scale are tied to the ratio between integers: a halved halter sounds the upper octave, reduced to its 3/4 the fourth, reduced to its 2/3 the fifth, and so on.
Much mathematics applied in the music field comes from the study of acoustic physics and related problems. If the same rhythmic division of the musical meter is indicated by a mathematical fraction, we know that at the base of any noise there is a contribution of innumerable stationary waves, and that any sound can be decomposed into sinusoidal waves by means of harmonic analysis (expressed mathematically with the Fourier transform algorithm).
The attempt to structure and communicate new ways of composing and hearing music has led to musical applications of set theory, abstract algebra and number theory. Some composers have incorporated the golden ratio and Fibonacci numbers into their work.
In a more abstract way, music was also related to mathematics in its compositional aspect (which requires the distribution of sounds between the various heights, at different times of time and between the different voices of performers). This kind of musical analysis has had illustrious musicians throughout the centuries (think of the musical geometries of Bach’s canons) and he has known new fortunes even in times close to us (in the 1900s, for example, the Kranischstein Institute in Darmstadt, Cologne Radio Electronic Music Studio, Milan’s Music Phonology Center and IRCAM in Paris).
Though ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians and Mesopotamians are known to have studied the mathematical principles of sound, the Pythagoreans (in particular Philolaus and Archytas) of ancient Greece were the first researchers known to have investigated the expression of musical scales in terms of numerical ratios, particularly the ratios of small integers. Their central doctrine was that “all nature consists of harmony arising out of numbers”.
From the time of Plato, harmony was considered a fundamental branch of physics, now known as musical acoustics. Early Indian and Chinese theorists show similar approaches: all sought to show that the mathematical laws of harmonics and rhythms were fundamental not only to our understanding of the world but to human well-being. Confucius, like Pythagoras, regarded the small numbers 1,2,3,4 as the source of all perfection.
From the seventeenth century many musicians have come to the test of solid mathematical knowledge (for example, Giuseppe Tartini gave evidence in a music treatise according to the true science of harmony in 1754 and so Iannis Xenakis in Music formalized in 1971, Pierre Boulez and Philip Glass graduates in mathematics and have been inspired by their art).
Without the boundaries of rhythmic structure – a fundamental equal and regular arrangement of pulse repetition, accent, phrase and duration – music would not be possible. Modern musical use of terms like meter and measure also reflects the historical importance of music, along with astronomy, in the development of counting, arithmetic and the exact measurement of time and periodicity that is fundamental to physics.
The elements of musical form often build strict proportions or hypermetric structures (powers of the numbers 2 and 3).
Musical form is the plan by which a short piece of music is extended. The term “plan” is also used in architecture, to which musical form is often compared. Like the architect, the composer must take into account the function for which the work is intended and the means available, practicing economy and making use of repetition and order. The common types of form known as binary and ternary (“twofold” and “threefold”) once again demonstrate the importance of small integral values to the intelligibility and appeal of music.
The beating phenomenon is when two similar frequency notes (but not identical) are played. There is then the impression of hearing a frequency sound close to those of the first two, whose intensity however oscillates over time as slowly as the frequencies of the first two sounds were close. For this reason, the beats are used to determine whether there are any falling or rising notes when you tune in an instrument.
The explanation for this phenomenon lies in part in the physical nature of the sound waves, and partly in the way that our ear perceives the sounds. If we focus our attention on the overlapping of two pure tones (ie that they can be represented by sinusoidal waves) and suppose, for simplicity,
A musical scale is a discrete set of pitches used in making or describing music. The most important scale in the Western tradition is the diatonic scale but many others have been used and proposed in various historical eras and parts of the world. Each pitch corresponds to a particular frequency, expressed in hertz (Hz), sometimes referred to as cycles per second (c.p.s.). A scale has an interval of repetition, normally the octave. The octave of any pitch refers to a frequency exactly twice that of the given pitch.
Succeeding superoctaves are pitches found at frequencies four, eight, sixteen times, and so on, of the fundamental frequency. Pitches at frequencies of half, a quarter, an eighth and so on of the fundamental are called suboctaves. There is no case in musical harmony where, if a given pitch be considered accordant, that its octaves are considered otherwise. Therefore, any note and its octaves will generally be found similarly named in musical systems (e.g. all will be called doh or A or Sa, as the case may be).
When expressed as a frequency bandwidth an octave A2–A3 spans from 110 Hz to 220 Hz (span=110 Hz). The next octave will span from 220 Hz to 440 Hz (span=220 Hz). The third octave spans from 440 Hz to 880 Hz (span=440 Hz) and so on. Each successive octave spans twice the frequency range of the previous octave.
Because we are often interested in the relations or ratios between the pitches (known as intervals) rather than the precise pitches themselves in describing a scale, it is usual to refer to all the scale pitches in terms of their ratio from a particular pitch, which is given the value of one (often written 1/1), generally a note which functions as the tonic of the scale. For interval size comparison, cents are often used.
There are two main families of tuning systems: equal temperament and just tuning. Equal temperament scales are built by dividing an octave into intervals which are equal on a logarithmic scale, which results in perfectly evenly divided scales, but with ratios of frequencies which are irrational numbers. Just scales are built by multiplying frequencies by rational numbers, which results in simple ratios between frequencies, but with scale divisions that are uneven.
One major difference between equal temperament tunings and just tunings is differences in acoustical beat when two notes are sounded together, which affects the subjective experience of consonance and dissonance. Both of these systems, and the vast majority of music in general, have scales that repeat on the interval of every octave, which is defined as frequency ratio of 2:1. In other words, every time the frequency is doubled, the given scale repeats.
Below are Ogg Vorbis files demonstrating the difference between just intonation and equal temperament. You may need to play the samples several times before you can pick the difference.
Two sine waves played consecutively – this sample has half-step at 550 Hz (C♯ in the just intonation scale), followed by a half-step at 554.37 Hz (C♯ in the equal temperament scale).
Same two notes, set against an A440 pedal – this sample consists of a “dyad”. The lower note is a constant A (440 Hz in either scale), the upper note is a C♯ in the equal-tempered scale for the first 1″, and a C♯ in the just intonation scale for the last 1″. Phase differences make it easier to pick the transition than in the previous sample.
5-limit tuning, the most common form of just intonation, is a system of tuning using tones that are regular number harmonics of a single fundamental frequency. This was one of the scales Johannes Kepler presented in his Harmonices Mundi (1619) in connection with planetary motion. The same scale was given in transposed form by Scottish mathematician and musical theorist, Alexander Malcolm, in 1721 in his ‘Treatise of Musick: Speculative, Practical and Historical’, and by theorist Jose Wuerschmidt in the 20th century. A form of it is used in the music of northern India.
American composer Terry Riley also made use of the inverted form of it in his “Harp of New Albion”. Just intonation gives superior results when there is little or no chord progression: voices and other instruments gravitate to just intonation whenever possible. However, it gives two different whole tone intervals (9:8 and 10:9) because a fixed tuned instrument, such as a piano, cannot change key. To calculate the frequency of a note in a scale given in terms of ratios, the frequency ratio is multiplied by the tonic frequency. For instance, with a tonic of A4 (A natural above middle C), the frequency is 440 Hz, and a justly tuned fifth above it (E5) is simply 440×(3:2) = 660 Hz.
Pythagorean tuning is tuning based only on the perfect consonances, the (perfect) octave, perfect fifth, and perfect fourth. Thus the major third is considered not a third but a ditone, literally “two tones”, and is (9:8)2 = 81:64, rather than the independent and harmonic just 5:4 = 80:64 directly below. A whole tone is a secondary interval, being derived from two perfect fifths, (3:2)2 = 9:8.
The just major third, 5:4 and minor third, 6:5, are a syntonic comma, 81:80, apart from their Pythagorean equivalents 81:64 and 32:27 respectively. According to Carl Dahlhaus (1990, p. 187), “the dependent third conforms to the Pythagorean, the independent third to the harmonic tuning of intervals.”
Western common practice music usually cannot be played in just intonation but requires a systematically tempered scale. The tempering can involve either the irregularities of well temperament or be constructed as a regular temperament, either some form of equal temperament or some other regular meantone, but in all cases will involve the fundamental features of meantone temperament. For example, the root of chord ii, if tuned to a fifth above the dominant, would be a major whole tone (9:8) above the tonic. If tuned a just minor third (6:5) below a just subdominant degree of 4:3, however, the interval from the tonic would equal a minor whole tone (10:9). Meantone temperament reduces the difference between 9:8 and 10:9. Their ratio, (9:8)/(10:9) = 81:80, is treated as a unison. The interval 81:80, called the syntonic comma or comma of Didymus, is the key comma of meantone temperament.
In equal temperament, the octave is divided into equal parts on the logarithmic scale. While it is possible to construct equal temperament scale with any number of notes (for example, the 24-tone Arab tone system), the most common number is 12, which makes up the equal-temperament chromatic scale. In western music, a division into twelve intervals is commonly assumed unless it is specified otherwise.
For the chromatic scale, the octave is divided into twelve equal parts, each semitone (half-step) is an interval of the twelfth root of two so that twelve of these equal half steps add up to exactly an octave. With fretted instruments it is very useful to use equal temperament so that the frets align evenly across the strings. In the European music tradition, equal temperament was used for lute and guitar music far earlier than for other instruments, such as musical keyboards. Because of this historical force, twelve-tone equal temperament is now the dominant intonation system in the Western, and much of the non-Western, world.
Equally tempered scales have been used and instruments built using various other numbers of equal intervals. The 19 equal temperament, first proposed and used by Guillaume Costeley in the 16th century, uses 19 equally spaced tones, offering better major thirds and far better minor thirds than normal 12-semitone equal temperament at the cost of a flatter fifth. The overall effect is one of greater consonance. 24 equal temperament, with 24 equally spaced tones, is widespread in the pedagogy and notation of Arabic music. However, in theory and practice, the intonation of Arabic music conforms to rational ratios, as opposed to the irrational ratios of equally tempered systems.
While any analog to the equally tempered quarter tone is entirely absent from Arabic intonation systems, analogs to a three-quarter tone, or neutral second, frequently occur. These neutral seconds, however, vary slightly in their ratios dependent on maqam, as well as geography. Indeed, Arabic music historian Habib Hassan Touma has written that “the breadth of deviation of this musical step is a crucial ingredient in the peculiar flavor of Arabian music. To temper the scale by dividing the octave into twenty-four quarter-tones of equal size would be to surrender one of the most characteristic elements of this musical culture.”
The following graph reveals how accurately various equal-tempered scales approximate three important harmonic identities: the major third (5th harmonic), the perfect fifth (3rd harmonic), and the “harmonic seventh” (7th harmonic). [Note: the numbers above the bars designate the equal-tempered scale (i.e., “12” designates the 12-tone equal-tempered scale, etc.)]
The problem of intonation, as mentioned above, derives from the need to be able to tune string instruments such as the piano or the strings so that they can play in different shades. None of the two methods thus far solves this problem with accuracy, as can be seen from the following procedure.
One way to tune a fixed tuning instrument is to preserve the fifth ranges from a base rope. In this way it is accorded by following the so-called loop cycle: Do, Sol, King, La, Me, Si, Do, Do, Solò, Reè, La, Fa (or Miè), Do seven octaves returns to the fundamental note. It is easy to see that none of the methods examined here can cause the Do8 to coincide with the one obtained from the loop cycle: in fact, for both the natural temperament and the pythagorean, the octave frequencies are multiple of powers of two, while in the loop cycle the frequencies are multiple of powers of 3/2: no power of two is also a power of 3/2. This argument applies also to other reports considered.
It is therefore seen that a tuner who wants to tune a tool trying to preserve all the right ranges (third, fourth, fifth) would face an insoluble problem and should still seek a compromise: this is what equals the temperament.
Musical set theory uses the language of mathematical set theory in an elementary way to organize musical objects and describe their relationships. To analyze the structure of a piece of (typically atonal) music using musical set theory, one usually starts with a set of tones, which could form motives or chords. By applying simple operations such as transposition and inversion, one can discover deep structures in the music. Operations such as transposition and inversion are called isometries because they preserve the intervals between tones in a set.
Expanding on the methods of musical set theory, some theorists have used abstract algebra to analyze music. For example, the pitch classes in an equally tempered octave form an abelian group with 12 elements. It is possible to describe just intonation in terms of a free abelian group.
Transformational theory is a branch of music theory developed by David Lewin. The theory allows for great generality because it emphasizes transformations between musical objects, rather than the musical objects themselves.
Theorists have also proposed musical applications of more sophisticated algebraic concepts. The theory of regular temperaments has been extensively developed with a wide range of sophisticated mathematics, for example by associating each regular temperament with a rational point on a Grassmannian.
Real and complex analysis have also been made use of, for instance by applying the theory of the Riemann zeta function to the study of equal divisions of the octave.
The development of contemporary music mathematics (from analysis to composition, to gesture in musical interpretation) is mainly due to the contribution of mathematician and musician Guerino Mazzola, a professor in the United States at the University of Minnesota.
The SMCM, Society for Mathematics and Computing in Music, organizes bi-annual conferences on the results of math and music research.
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