We’ve talked in the past about the interaction between music and science (see Mozart, Bird Song and IQ) but this has largely centred on the psychological effects of music. What about the mathematical dimension to sound and the interrelationship between musical, chemical and physical structures?
For maths geeks, a recent video from the magazines Quanta and Scientific American may prove interesting. Many of us are aware that the differential equations of vibrating strings and surfaces help us understand harmonics and tuning systems; rhythm analysis informs us of the ways a measure can be divided into beats; and the study of symmetry relates to the translations in time and pitch that occur in a fugue or canon.
However, the video explores a less well-known connection: musical chords naturally inhabit various topological spaces, which show all the possible paths that a composer can use to move between chords. The space of two-note chords is a Möbius strip, while the space for a three-note chords is a kind of twisted triangular torus.
In a less formal but much more wide-ranging project, Icelandic pop and avant-garde musician Björk famously undertook her own exploration of the relationship between music and science, for which she enlisted the help of renowned naturalist David Attenborough and numerous musical and scientific experts.
Her Biophilia project involves not only a studio album which was ‘partly recorded’ on an iPad and released as a series of apps, but is a major multimedia project “encompassing music, apps, Internet, installations, and live shows”. Exploring ideas from physics, chemistry and biology, it featured specially developed instruments based around a range of scientific principles.
Tesla Coil as a musical instrument, while a so-called ‘gameleste’ – a hybrid between a gamelan and a celesta – was programmed to be played remotely by a tablet computer: this features in both the tracks ‘Crystalline’ and ‘Virus’. Meanwhile, the song ‘Solstice’ brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘music of the spheres”: in a tribute to the concept of Foucault’s pendulum, harp.
The crossover between science and music has recently been explored in-depth in a series of programmes on BBC Radio 4. ‘The Science of Music’ touches on everything from the origin of music (are we really descended from singing cavemen?) to the logic, engineering and physics underlying the musical sounds we hear and what goes on in our head when we listen to music.