Music and Math

I’ve heard that there is a kind of link between an affinity for math and music. In a way, it doesn’t make sense, since the stereotype of math nerds is of people seeking high structure with minimal deviation from rules. In my case, working in a math-dominated profession, I am well qualified to explore this phenomenon in a non-scientific way. Non-scientific? You mean I’m just going to make things up? Yup. Sure, I’ll try to make sense, but I won’t let mere facts stand in the way of an interesting hypothesis.

I don’t call myself a math kind of person, because, inside my own head, I am not. The mathy types that I know could make me feel stupid without breaking a sweat or dropping what snack food they typically eat. To be fair, I, in turn, could do the same to almost any non-math person. To survive all the way through my dissertation in biostatistics, a mathy kind of field, I did have to do fancy things with matrix calculus and various theories of large numbers. But, I promise you, I didn’t enjoy it. Therefore, I am not a math kind of person. Do you believe me? No? OK, fine. I accept your dissent.

Music, described in a mathematical way (from Wikipedia)

Music, described in a mathematical way (from Wikipedia)

As it happens, in my own department, there are a lot of musicians including two who could actually make a living in music, but chose not to. One is an accomplished Latin bass guitar player who takes those German-derived oompah rhythms, mixed with Mexican guitar players to produce music that, while spectacular, should not be played near me. The other had a brief swing as a local singer/songwriter (also known as “starving artist”). One step down are a collection of brass players who participate in various community bands, described by one as “high school band for people with mortgages.” There is an odd proliferation of current/former trombone players which, in my school band history, were the social rejects (including me). There’s also a couple piano players, a guitarist, and me, the only person in the department brave enough to sing in public, although 20+ years after my last performance.

So, here’s my half-assed thoughts relating to why we math-skilled folk are drawn to music performance.

  1. Most of us are professional pattern recognizers and music contains vast amounts of patterns to be recognized that, unlike in our job, can be potentially replicated almost perfectly every time.
  2. Some level of music contains terminology that may sound very mathy. A 5th interval, for example. I think that’s a red herring for the math/music connection. Fine, it’s a number, but big freaking deal. Many streets have numbers and math-skilled aren’t known to be good street cleaners.
  3. Sound, in general, and music, in particular, can be described as a sum of many many many sine waves and the relationship between the content of one sound and another can be described in terms of multiples of the frequency of each sine wave. One frequency that’s twice another is an octave higher, for example. I think that kind of relationship is intuitively and subconsciously appealing to math-minded people. As I think of it, maybe I’ll do a bunch of posts related to just that sum-of-sine-wave feature. Why? Because I can.
  4. We like things to have a place, not in an anal retentive kind of way (have you seen our messy desks?), but in an understandable kind of way. Music has that where melodies/harmonies/choruses/etc all have an understandable relationship to each other.
  5. Music is a kind of conversation that doesn’t scare people as much as our professional conversations might. Mere mention of my profession has stopped many conversations in the past, even without describing any details of my job.
  6. As structured as our world may seem, many of us are very creative people and somehow music seems to be a form of creativity that more closely fits our professional talents. Some in the field are very good at explaining complex concepts in a simple way. To those, writing might fit, but, if you’ve ever had a chance to talk with a statistician, you’d find that, while extremely nice, we aren’t all the most socially ept (opposite of ‘inept’) people. Many are, but not as many as in the broader population. Music fits our peculiar instincts better.

So, if you need someone to count off the rhythm, trust a math nerd. Lawrence Welk was probably very mathematically fluent, after all!

3 thoughts on “Music and Math

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