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Proportions; music and science; the role of numbers

The relationship between music, mathematics and science has a long history. Pythagoras (580 - 572 BC) who studied
the vibration of strings and determined the ratios between overtones thought everything is governed by numbers and
mathematical relations: music as well as the entire universe. Interestingly, the beginning of the Baroque music
coincides with the birth of modern science and its peak parallels the advent of classical mechanics as exemplified by
the lifespan of:
Monteverdi 1567 1643 Galileo Galilei 1564 1642
Ren Descartes 1596 1650
J. S. Bach 1685 1750
G. F. Hndel 1685 1759 Sir Isaac Newton 1643 1727

More than a superficial coincidence, both the music and the science of this period describe a world which is complex
and intricate but rational and deterministic, in accord with the ideas of the Enlightenment. Another example of an
encounter between science (acoustics) and music is Jean-Philippe Rameau's Trait de l'harmonie (1722), the book that
established the basis of tonal harmony.

Later on, French philosopher Henri Bergson who dealt extensively with the relativity, time perception and memory,
influenced the music of Debussy while the DADA movement (1916) is presumed to have some bearing over the
advent of Quantum Physics (1920s). Could it be that all this was the effect of zeitgeist (the ghost of time) ?

Vibrating strings and air columns show the existence of nodes and anti-nodes as well as multiple modes of vibration
(you may skip the math). The presence of such modes of vibration determines the existence of what musicians call
overtones and scientists call partials. The fundamental frequency or pitch is partial #1, first overtone partial # 2, etc.
Partials, or harmonics, or overtones are integer multiples of the frequency of the fundamental pitch:
In class we talked about the clarinet and the fact that it produces only odd-numbered partials:

Traditional Western rhythmic notation (divisionary system) uses ratios/proportions to divide a large value (whole
note) into subdivisions of 2, 4, 8.., 3, 6, 9,... 5,... 7,... etc. By contrast, the Aksak (additive system) common to non-
Western traditions uses a fast pulse in usually uneven groupings: (2+2+3)/8. Bartok, among other composers, have
used them (see Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm at the end of Mikrokosmos).

The 1950s saw the emergence of proportional notation, where the length of a line is proportional to the duration of a
sound and its height on the page corresponds to its pitch. The score will usually contain an indication of the type:
1 inch = 1 sec. Here is an impossibly long link to a few pages from Reginald Smith Brindle's book The New Music:

Among the most common devices used by artists and musicians are the Fibonacci series of numbers and the Golden
Section. The Fibonacci series: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34,... is produced by adding two adjacent numbers in order to
obtain the following one. For more information than you might want, ake a look at:
In music, on can find such proportions in many compositions from Renaissance to present days. In most cases they
are (probably) the result of a conscious attempt but just proof of a keen sense of proportions. However, two
composers, Batok and Debussy have used these devices consistently as documented in Roy Horwath Debussy in
Proportion and Ern Lendvai - Bla Bartk: An Analysis of his Music. The pitch intervals on the first page of
Bartok's Music for Strings, percussion and celesta contain exclusively Fibonacci numbers of semitones. We also
looked in class at Debussy's first piano prelude, book 1 ...Danseuses de Delphes

For more about Bartok go to