Science Sings the Blues

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 When you hum to music from the radio, you probably aren’t thinking of mathematics. Equations aren’t forming in your mind and you aren’t solving for x as the tunes hit your ears. But according to Jason I. Brown, professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Dalhousie University, human physiology, for some reason, is particularly suited to discovering the mathematics inherently in music. “Our bodies, our ears, and our minds are built to recognize the mathematics that lies here,” he said during his Distinctive Voices @ The Beckman Center talk on May 25, 2011.

“Music is inherently encoded in mathematics and physics,” said Brown, though he asserts that few musicians are open to talking about the mathematics of their music. “I call it the ‘Tommy Lee syndrome’ where what you want to do as a musician is to appear as unschooled as you as possible can. I think this is a detriment to musicians because, in my opinion, music uses more mathematics when they do their music than practically any other profession – including accountants.”

Joni Mitchell, for instance, uses a mathematical sequence of numbers to keep track of her special guitar tunings. Most people remember the notes of the strings but with over 80 different guitar tunings, Mitchell has a lot to keep track of. She remembers the bottom string and how many semi-tones the next string is up from the next string. “There’s a mathematical component to how she thinks about her music,” said Brown.

During his talk, which you can watch below or by clicking here, Brown discusses how trigonometry is inherent in music (pure tones are sines and cosines), the mathematics of blues, and his research of the famous opening chord from the Beatles song, “A Hard Day’s Night.” Not only did Brown discover the Beatles were out of tune during the recording but using a mathematical technique known as the Fourier transform, he discovered a piano in the mix. The piano and guitar chords blend together almost seamlessly – it’s almost impossible to recognize the piano by ear. “Only the mathematics will tell you that,” said Brown.


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.