Music Is Math

December 19, 2010

Big thanks to the Behance Network for turning me on to the amazing work of Tatiana Plakhova, whose series “Music Is Math” is a meditation on the mathematical nature of sound, expressed in exciting and complex visualizations. Her work is grounded in exploring patterns and repeated forms, but she does so with a celestial eye and encourages us to consider tiny aspects of reality as being microcosms unto themselves.

The image above could fit equally as well in a NASA photo gallery as it could in a physicist’s treatise on string theory, yet it was inspired by music. Mathematical patterns and recursive vertices weave in and out of all three topics, but it took an artist as talented as Tatiana to bring the similarities into bright focus.

You can order prints and wallpapers at Complexity Graphics


Platonic… Music?

July 9, 2010

Courtesy Jay Kennedy

“Looking at Plato’s works in their original scroll form, he noticed that every 12 lines there was a passage that discussed music.” – excerpt from  “A Musical Message Discovered In Plato’s Works

This article is fascinating to me, not because of the DaVinci Code-like revelation, but rather the emphasis on the number 12. It is a story that, yet again, links mathematics and music. It also dovetails nicely with a post of mine from January 2009 (“Twelve“), while referencing Pythagoras and the importance placed on ratio and proportion (also detailed here, “The Golden Page“)

There is no real conclusion drawn from the NPR feature, so we are left wondering why the preeminent thinker of 300 B.C. felt strongly enough about music to encode its defining principles into an otherwise non-musical work. The real takeaway here, and this is irrefutable: Plato felt compelled to draw connections between various arts and disciplines. Perhaps by conceptually linking disparate ideas, Plato believed he could reconcile the conflict and strife that always seem to arise when concepts appear at odds. (Science vs. religion, math vs. art, sculpture vs. painting, etc…)

These links and connections, as expressed through music, are what BlogSounds is all about.

Music Awareness

June 3, 2010

I just learned of this 2007 experiment by the Washington Post (post courtesy of The Bold Life), which can be summarized as follows:

  • The Post arranged to have a man play the violin for 45 minutes in the middle of a busy DC-Metro station. The material consisted of six different works by J.S. Bach.
  • Reactions from onlookers and passersby were documented, peaking at mild, short-lived interest. (Oddly enough, some of the strongest reactions seemed to come from children, whose parents were quick to scurry them along regardless…)
  • In total, only six people stopped to listen and twenty gave money (grand total: $32)
  • Upon completion there was no applause or acknowledgement.

The violinist was world-renowned virtuoso Joshua Bell, playing a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin (more on Bell and his extravagant instrument here). Two days prior, Bell performed a sold-out show in Boston where seats averaged $100 each.

A litany of questions and conclusions followed (“In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?…”). But for me, it brought to mind a comment from jazz pianist Bill Evans in his biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, where he laments the fact that jazz music is all too often relegated to being background music for the din of conversation in a club. Bill estimated that only a very small percentage of his listeners during a performance actually picked up on the nuances and excitement of what he and his trio were playing.

The DC experiment demonstrates the importance of the listener participation. Listening to music is not a passive act, where the notes and chords wash over your ears and into your head effortlessly. To get the most out of a piece of music, and thus putting it on par with a great novel in terms of complexity and storytelling magic, the listener needs to take an active role in the process. Literature transcends entertainment as soon as you learn to read, and music can do the same when you learn to listen.

Hearing and listening are not the same thing, as the DC Metro experiment makes clear…

Music and the Mind

June 1, 2010

Here is a link to a great New York Times conversation with Aniruddh D. Patel, author of “Music, Language, and the Brain,” fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, and self-proclaimed Neuroscientist of Music. One insight, following the discovery of a parrot named Snowball who dances to the beat of a Backstreet Boys song:

“What do humans have in common with parrots? Both species are vocal learners, with the ability to imitate sounds. We share that rare skill with parrots. In that one respect, our brains are more like those of parrots than chimpanzees. Since vocal learning creates links between the hearing and movement centers of the brain, I hypothesized that this is what you need to be able to move to beat of music.”

Patel continues:

“Before Snowball, I wondered if moving to a musical beat was uniquely human. Snowball doesn’t need to dance to survive, and yet, he did. Perhaps, this was true of humans, too?”

The question, of course, remains why? Why do we, along with parrots, respond instinctively to music?

My take: it could be that music provides the same “neuro-catharsis” during daytime hours as dreaming does while we’re asleep, stimulating our brains and escaping our analytical reality. Music (and through association, dance)  may be a vestigial “sanity check,” a screensaver of the mind, to bring us out of our day-to-day and prevent our mental processes from becoming to static and habitual.

Music from a Tree

July 19, 2009


“Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem.” – Rollo May

Diego Stocco is a man who once saw a tree and decided to make music with it. Armed with some microphones, a modified stethoscope, a bow, and a Pro Tools LE system, he composed an entire piece of music using only unmodified sounds formed from the tree itself. Check out the final result here: Diego Stucco’s “Music From a Tree”

[Related post: “By Any Other Name…“]

Medicinal Music

June 7, 2009


“We know music can calm, influence creativity, can energize. That’s great. But music’s role in recovering from disease is being ever more appreciated.” – Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Center for Neurological Restoration at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic

Music as medicine is the latest notion in the long-established principle that music affects physiology. It’s  a mellifluous dance of organized vibrations in the air striking an eardrum, with the vibrations being transferred through bones and nerves into the gray matter of your brain. Listening to music, or any sound really, is the act of your body translating physical motion into aural playback in your mind.

Expanding the scope a bit, consider this:

  • Music begins as a concept in a musician or composer’s mind, a purely cerebral activity.
  • It is then transferred into either the physical act of playing an instrument, or composing.
  • If composed, it takes the vision of a musician to read (intake) the notes and convert them to the appropriate physical movement, whether vocal or instrumental
  • Once the music is performed, it makes its way into a listener’s ear and sent along to the brain, where the snapping of synapses creates playback inside the listener’s mind

It’s a circular experience, beginning and ending in the mind.

But what if that’s not where the journey ends?

This is what a recent MSNBC article attempts to answer. The thought is that the journey continues past the mind and actually influences physical behavior and recovery from injury:

“Research has already shown that if you play a piece — like Mozart — at a certain slow beat, the listener will adapt their heart beat to the beat of the music.” – Dr. Claudius Conrad, senior surgical resident at Harvard Medical School; pianist

This extra leg of the aural journey, from listening to physical response, is detailed in the article: the synaptic pulse in your brain, in addition to stimulating your auditory cortex, also hits the hypothalamus, which controls heart rate and respiration in addition to stomach and skin nerves. This is why a tune can “give you butterflies or goose bumps.”

The journey also includes the chemical, in the form of hormones. It was found that, in addition to a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate, critically ill patients can show a “50 percent spike in pituitary growth hormone” when listening to Mozart sonatas. This hormone is known to stimulate healing.

So what does that mean for the aspiring musician looking to make a living?:

“At Cleveland Clinic, Rezai and other neurosurgeons collaborate with The Cleveland Orchestra to compose classical pieces to play for patients during brain operations.”

And one of the oldest instruments, the harp, is still the go-to solution for music therapy:

The harp is the only instrument that has 20 to 50 strings and is open, unlike, say, a violin. When a harpist strikes a chord, she also opens vibrations in strings just above and below the few she plucks. Those vibes… are absorbed by the body.

The world of medicine is becoming entwined with the world of music, which is likely to result in a whole new cache of careers and job opportunities for musicians and doctors alike.

The Golden Page

May 29, 2009


This Information Age we’re living in is full of knowledge, most of which is free and entirely at our fingertips. Yet despite the litany of sites offering free downloadable copies of classics, the world at large remains largely unread. Why?

Perhaps its because the words are not on a page.

You may argue that words are words, and can be read wherever they appear. While this is true I argue that the medium matters. A lot. More than we may realize. Amazon’s Kindle is trying to address this issue, which is this: People want to read things in a format that suits one’s field of vision.

I dont think this is a conscious choice. It’s simply a more comfortable reading experience when you’re looking at something your eye is able to take in without trouble. This is why reading a novel on your computer screen, or scanning through a treatise typed on a billboard, will never be best practice. The medium matters.

So what, then, of music?

The term “medium” or “format” in music relates to the way in which the sound is recorded and listened to, and can range from LP’s to streaming mp3’s.  And the format does matter. Audiophiles who swear by the warmth of long-playing records sometimes have a hard time enjoying the experience  of listening to music on an iPod Shuffle. Similarly, Apple-philes find that the portability and interactive nature of the iPod and iPod Touch make listening to music more fun, and find LP’s antiquated, crackly, and inconvenient.

In the end it amounts to personal preference, but always remember that the way you intake certain art forms can affect your opinion more than the art itself. The subtle way that content relates to medium is an overlooked aspect of preference.

(For further reading into the mysterious nature of aesthetics, check out the Wikipedia article on The Golden Ratio: )