The science of music

Yesterday the Dean of the College of Science, Dr. J. Murray Gibson, gave an awesome talk about the mathematical and physical foundations of music (slides are posted here). Part of what made the talk so enjoyable was that Dr. Gibson showed the audience what he was talking about by demonstrating his presentation’s main points by playing them out on a piano. This made the talk particularly artful and, in my opinion, much more effective than just a generic PowerPoint presentation.

A few interesting tidbits from the talk:

-The modern tuning of the piano (the equal tempered scale) was actually a compromise to allow for music to be played in different keys. This contrasts with the original ‘just tuning’ which provides a more pure (and mathematically accurate) sound but is only suitable for one scale at a time (C Major for example). The contrast is nicely summarized here and explained more fully here.

-The crushed note in blues music is an attempt to play a note that doesn’t exist on the modern piano. The ‘blues note’ falls between two notes and so the pianist plays both notes together to try to approximate the frequency of the true note.


Look for more posts from me about the intersection of science & art and about what makes a good presentation- I’m a big fan of both those topics.


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