Musical numbers are made of numbers.

The Math Behind the Music

Blog 4

Every time enthusiastic musicians sit together, they kick off a jam session with a ‘3.. 2.. 1..’, to ensure that their timing isn’t off. When it comes to music, timing is key. A melody only comes together if all the instruments are in sync and when they chime in at just the right time.

The foundation of music is based on notes. These dictate the pitch and duration of a sound and its representation in musical notation.

A note can also represent a pitch class. Notes are the building blocks of written music. Think of them as scripts for musicians to be able to pick up their instrument, decode the script and play a song. Whether it was written just yesterday, or even a century ago.

These notes calculate the time between and length of the notes that need to be played. Therefore, they rely on Math. After all, what are these notes and gaps if not numbers. So to facilitate a coordinated musical performance, one will need to have an understanding of how numbers work.

Maths is fundamental to music. We’re intuitively attracted to patterns. A human brain is a machine that tries to find patterns in nature. Rhythm is a form of patterns and when we hear music, we prefer music that is melodic, which has a pattern, which has its highs and lows.

The Greek octave had just five notes and Pythagoras had a very interesting observation around the relationship between a note and the size of a string.

Assume, for example, that a string that you strum, plays the note ‘A’. The next note is 4/5 the length (or 5/4th the frequency) which is approximately a ‘C’. The rest of the octave has the fraction ¾, which is approximately ‘D’, 2/3 which is approximately ‘E’, and 3/5 which is approximately ‘F’ before you get to ½ which is the octave ‘A’ again.

Pythagoras imagined a ‘music of the spheres’ that was created by the universe because these ratios were made up of the numbers 1,2,3,4 and 5.

So, when you look at the 18th century music made by the likes of J.S. Bach and Philip Glass, you will notice that it has mathematical undertones. In fact, it is believed that some of the finest composers wrote their melodies using the ‘Golden ratio’ or the Fibonacci sequence.

So the next time a song comes up on the radio, and you’re enjoying the number, remember that it was probably composed with real numbers kept in mind.