Math, Music and Science Dance Together Through History

For centuries, music and science have been tightly linked—if not brothers-in-arms, at least cousins. Music has always reflected the world around it and the science and technology at the time. For example, take the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagorus. Anyone who took geometry in middle school or high school knows about Pythagorus’ famous theorem, a2 + b2 = c2. What these students don’t know is that Pythagorus is also responsible for our current harmonic system. To make a long story short, Pythagorus divided a string in half and plucked it—and got the octave. Then he divided it in thirds and got the fifth above the octave. And so on…you get the picture. The triadic harmonic system which was used from the Renaissance to…well, the early 20th century…was based on this concept.

During the late Renaissance, the Baroque, and the Classical Era, Newton’s laws – the concept of order underlying the universe—held sway. Music, especially in the Baroque era, mirrored this idea of the universe as orderly. The 20th century saw the rise of quantum mechanics and special and general relativity as theories, which modified Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum mechanics was built on essentially a single observation—the inability of light waves to follow Newton’s laws. 20th century music reflected this new, quantum reality (and the concept that under Newtonian order lay quantum randomness) with the suspension of the harmonic system that had been in place for centuries in favor of new experimental forms like 12-tone music, minimalism, and the music (or in some cases non-music) of John Cage. Music exploded into many different forms and genres—jazz, blues, rock, country hip-hop, etc.

And now we come to the 21st century, the genetic age where we have a working draft of the human genome and exponentially advancing DNA sequencing technology. What will be the type of music that will typify our age? Stay tuned to to find out…

Thanks to Professor Robert Greenberg’s “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” from the Teaching Company for some of the concepts discussed in this blog post.

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  • Becky White

    very interesting, Have you seen the book Quadrivium?