Does the mere mention of denominators ruin your day? Do square roots send you running for cover? Math can seem strict, serious, even scary. For some, classical music can be just as daunting. But there’s no need for math and music to be burdened by their highfalutin reputations — just ask mathematician and musician Dr. Eugenia Cheng! Eugenia hosts WFMT’s new digital series Math in Music. The video series — which will be released on WFMT.com, appropriately enough, on Pi Day, (Saturday, 3.14!) — features 11 fun and accessible videos that break down the surprising connections between math and music.
“Contrary to popular myth,” Eugenia explains, “math is not just about numbers, but about patterns, structures, and logic, and patterns and structures also pervade classical music. Logical analysis in math gives us a way to describe how music affects us emotionally, and to talk about our experience of music with other people.”
Eugenia would be the first to acknowledge that you don’t need to know the mathematical underpinnings to appreciate classical favorites like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or Debussy’s Clair de lune. But they can enhance your listening and appreciate the impressive achievements of classical composers and artists.
Concepts like “commutativity” and “irrational numbers” may not seem germane to classical music, but they actually help us to understand music by composers from Bach to Bernstein, as explained in Episodes 1 and 11. What about those fearsome fractions? Well, as Eugenia details in Episode 5, it turns out they help affect the whole mood of a piece!
So while math and music might not make the most obvious complements, the 11-part series makes the compelling case that the pair is even greater than the sum of its parts.
Editor’s note: In conjunction with Math in Music, Dr. Eugenia Cheng was scheduled to appear on WFMT’s Impromptu on Thursday, March 19 at noon. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, that appearance has been canceled.