Faculty of 1000

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Music to my ears

Posted by rpg on 5 March, 2010

A few weeks ago I went to the Faraday Prize Lecture at the Royal Society. The lecture, The secret mathematicians, was given by the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science Marcus du Sautoy. Du Sautoy talked about five artists, how they were inspired by mathematics, and how their art tells us things about mathematics: a musician (Olivier Messiaen); an author (Luis Jorge Borges); an architect (Le Corbusier); a painter (Salvador Dali) and a choreographer (Rudolf Laban).

Music probably has the most obvious connection to mathematics: rhythm and tonality are based on mathematical relationships, and du Sautoy reminded us of the saying of Gottfried Leibniz,

Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.

For me, the link between mathematics and music breaks down when composers take the maths and try to base music on it, without reference to several hundred years of music theory. In other words, just because you can use (for example) prime numbers to create a pattern, doesn’t mean you should. Schoenberg’s atonal compositions just sound like noise to me—yes, call me a Philistine if you like—and I reckon you should leave prime numbers to the cicadas. Mathematics can describe all music, sure; but not all maths is musical.

Similarly, the relationship between music and the rest of science has not always been harmonious. I came across the Symphony of Science this week, a musical project

designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.

Sounds great, and the website looks nice with embedded videos and links to the lyrics. Unfortunately I’m not convinced it works: some pleasant enough but rather non-descript elevator muzak plays while voices of scientists are processed to sound synthesized (and yes, the pitch and tempo are adjusted to saound vaguely musical but anyone can do that in Garageband) and lip-synced with video. It’s not ground-breaking by any stretch, and is shot through with New Age-style philosophies that I find rather hard to stomach (and check out the strange collection of Google ads on the site!). Richard Dawkins repeatedly saying ‘science is the poetry of reality’ trivializes any meaning he might have been trying to get across. The only thing worth repeating was Jill Tarter’s The story of humans is the story of ideas; to shine light into dark corners but even that isn’t in the same league as Tom Lehrer, whether reciting all the chemical elements or poisoning pigeons in the park; or even Ron Laskey:


Back to du Sautoy. In a three-dimensional development of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the choreographer Rudolf Laban claims that Man is inclined to follow the connecting lines of the 12 corner points of an icosahedron with his movements travelling as it were along an invisible network of paths; and indeed his dancers trace out a Platonic shape with the tips of their limbs. But whether the maths drives this, or whether the mathematical description is simply an inevitable consequence of our bodily shape is not clear.

AcropioolisThe Fibonacci series is very familiar to most scientists, and perhaps because it is the result of a simple geometric algorithm it describes many natural relationships: the expanding population of rabbits, for example, or the spiral shape of a snail’s shell. Architects such as Le Corbusier have used it to plan buildings in two and three dimensions, and even the Greeks knew about it: the proportions of the Acropolis follow the Golden Ratio, which is derived from the Fibonacci sequence.

AsteroidsLiterature can also take inspiration from mathematics—not simply in the number of words or letters or syllables (although that is something that has occurred to this writer)—but in the inspiration of Borges’ Library of Babel. Borges, amazingly, uses a literary device to describe one model of the Universe: finite, yet unbounded (as opposed to spatially infinite but ‘flat’). Du Sautoy took the opportunity in his lecture to show how a simple computer game could also model the Universe, which caused not a little hilarity and some reflections on the nature of dimensionality.

Finally, Salvador Dali.

Dali once said

I am a carnivorous fish swimming in two waters, the cold water of art and the hot water of science

and in his art he is actually experimenting with mathematical relationships even as he creates. His art is informed by fractals (‘Visage of War’); by three-dimensional shapes and the Golden Ratio(‘The Sacrament of the Last Supper’); catastrophe theory (‘The Swallow’s Tail’ and ‘Topological Abduction of Europe’); and four-dimensional space:

Dali's Crucifxion on a hypercube
Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)

Christ floats above the exploded tesseract or hypercube (a three dimensional representation of a four dimensional shape); Dali uses a very mathematical and indeed scientific construct to explore how spirituality extends beyond the dimensions and senses normally available to us.

Mathematicians, says Marcus du Sautoy, do it for the beauty, for the art. There is a pleasure in counting, in numbers; and in their relationships to each other. Perhaps then it is not surprising that art and maths do have a great deal to say to each other.

The Michael Faraday Prize Lecture is available from the Royal Society website.


3 Responses to “Music to my ears”

  1. cromercrox said

    call me a Philistine if you like

    I like. You’re a Philistine.

  2. stevepog said

    excellent. now call me a cab

  3. emersox said


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