John Rayner, my ANU colleague, wrote an excellent article about the physics and music that seemed to strike a chord with The Conversation’s readership. John’s piece is beautifully set by personal and anecdotal details John’s was subtitle a Love Song but the issues he raises about music and physics date back to ancient Greece and are as old and relevant as the disciplines.
It was a great inspiration for me, a musicologist, to write from the other side, and to meet my scientist colleague in the middle of a conversation about the parallels between the worlds.
Music’s meaning can be both tantalizing and mysterious. Music has the ability to touch us deeply and directly for most people. It is tempting to think of music simply as a language. The idea of music being a type of “language of emotions” is widespread, centuries-old, and has limited experimental support.
The majority of theoretical work on musical semiotics focuses on music as a different flavour of discourse, another language for signs. However, it does have its own unique characteristics.
This is contrary to an old idea: music is a natural law. Music of the spheres was a medieval idea that music is a natural law. The movement of celestial bodies, which we now call astrophysics, was govern by principles of harmony and resonance. There are also common Pythagorean proportions that govern both music and cosmology.
We music academics are nostalgic for the medieval era, when music was one of the core disciplines along with astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. In that time, logic, grammar, and rhetoric were consider the lesser language-based disciplines, so we hold pride of place.
Lows And Highs Physics
Physics is a part of the language use to describe music and the concepts that we use for understanding it. We may not realize how metaphorical it is to talk about musical pitch in terms of high or low.
Musical pitch is not altitude: Higher pitches are create by higher vibrations than lower pitches. We don’t use the term pitch to describe fast or slow music; we use them as metaphors for something entirely different.
Yet, musical altitude is a concept that makes sense when we consider the energy states of music. As you can see in the below excerpt from Puccini’s opera Tosca (at 2:40), we can notice that a soprano is maintaining a top B flat. This means she must be in a high-energy state which will eventually lead to relaxation.
The pitch seems to be invested with the kinetic energy necessary to produce it. In Tosca’s instance, she encounters the force of gravity in a literal way, but that’s another story.
Singers, brass, and wind players expend energy in order to attain altitude, while guitarists, keyboardists, and string players work no harder to achieve the high notes than those at the lower end.
Human Voice Is So Central To Music
Perhaps because the human voice is so central to music, the idea of fighting musical gravity, as in the Paganini violin concerto and the Jimi Hendrix solo guitar, is omnipresent. As in physics, music is like music: what goes up must also go down.
It doesn’t just fall anywhere. Many musical systems have a point of reference. This is a pitch that acts as an attractor and pulls the music towards it.
In Western music, we call this the, and most people, regardless of their level of formal musical training, can hear and sing the note to which the music is pulling. The idea of gravitational and magnetic attraction to a pitch is arguably the most important. Feature of Western music from 1600 to 1900 and many musics after that.
While this may be a hallmark of Western music, it is also a feature of other cultures’ musics. The idea of a point or attraction can be even stronger in other musics. Such as the one below, which comes from Classical Indian music.