Saturday, August 22, 2009

"The mathematical botch job that is music"


Clearing out old podcasts – the slow way: by listening to them! – I came across a fascinating discussion on the Open University/Radio 4 co-production More or Less, a regular series that looks behind the “numbers, statistics and figures [that] guide our lives”.

Having played the violin as a youngster, and bashed out chords on a keyboard before switching to the sound desk, I’ve been familiar with scales and chords for much of my life.

But I’ve also been aware that tuning isn’t an exact science. Our ears can be deceived. And while major and minor keys together with tones and semitones are the norm in Western culture, quarter tones and all kinds of other patterns can be appreciated too.

A third of the way through the 7 August programme (starting 12 min 32 sec in to be precise) there’s a lovely piece that looks at the maths behind music, tuning, perfect fifths, and the practical compromises that have been made over the years.

As the presenter Tim Harford phased it in his introduction to Ruth Alexander’s report:

“the mathematical botch job that is music.”

(Image at top used under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic licence from eyesore9 on Flickr)

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