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Gabriel Almeida

The Mathematical Secrets of Music

Dr. E Cheng

The importance of visual representation can be regarded in two ways: first,

the possibility of expressing abstract concepts, that might contain an indefinite

number of specific concrete objects, without having to particularize (and thus

unnecessarily complicate) the form of expression; second, the necessity of

expressing the relationships between this concepts not only in a manner that is

comprehensible, but in one that highlights the specific interactions we are interested

in utilizing. Thus, I considered the necessity of visual representation as purely

practical, i.e. as springing from the practical necessity to manipulate and use

abstract notions and relationships we have recognized in a variety of objects.

This both helps and hinders our manipulation of the objects (and at the same

time). Unavoidably, an abstract representational system eliminates particular

qualities of objects in the interest of using others. On the one hand, this allows for a

more in-depth investigation of the abstract notion we have created. For example,

without the abstract notion of melody, we would only be capable of experiencing a

limited combination of tones or intervals; some which would be prohibited by

different kinds of ideologies and traditions. This could be seen in the use of music in

religious societies, in which divisions between sacred and profane objects excluded

intervals and tones that were regarded as noxious. It is only with the recognition of
melody as an important in-itself (although, not only melody, but at the same time,

harmony, rhythm and other elements of music), that the creative play of tones and

colors became their predominant raison d’être. Visual representation of music

permitted the continuous and every time more profound search for creative

solutions to the problems and necessities of music. Similarly, I presumed, the

manipulation of abstract representations of numbers facilitated the development of

notions that are not restricted to natural needs, like real or imaginary, instead of

merely natural numbers. It permits a certain distance from nature that at the same

time allows us to seek more riches into nature’s depth.

On the other hand, this appears to us as in itself limiting our possibilities to

accomplish what it offers. Visual representation might appear to restrict, in the way

that the for example the creation of scales, even though they permitted a higher form

of harmonic manipulation, eliminate intermediate tones and sets them apart from

the musicians possibilities. More importantly, it seems to refrain the possible

relationships that music as sound can generate. The same ideas such as harmony,

melody, rhythm, etc, are only possible notions abstracted from relationships

recognized in the practical manipulation of sound for creative purposes. Preset-

forms of visual representation can tend towards stagnation within these categories;

it would imply the forgetting why they were created on the first place. The

overcoming of these categories, however, is itself ambivalent. The constant creative

invention of visual representations, and the notions it could discover, can abstractly

bend towards hermeticism, in the sense of becoming incomprehensible to its


possible audience. This overlooks the fact that the new and the old are necessarily

interconnected: the new springs from the old and gives it a new meaning; the life of

what is old depends on its transformation.

I imagine impossible to use, for example, Guido d’Arezzo’s musical notation to

compose a Wagner opera; just as it would be impossible to use the exceedingly

meticulous Wagnerian orchestration to create the more improvisatory feeling of

Renaissance’s compositions. In art, maybe differently than in math, visual

representation is qualitatively specific to the compositions. This has become more

and more obvious with modern 20th century music, which usually works with its

tools, including musical notation, ad extremis. But the same can be said of Bach’s use

of musical notation referred in class in which what was not written was still

understood. Another example can be found on the medieval organum in which only

the cantus firmus would be notated, while the improvisatory voices would change on

each performance. In theory, artist can still use creatively ancient forms of notation

if they appear to be able to generate new and different musical ideas. In

mathematics, ancient forms of notations have mostly become obsolete. Another way

to put it would be: although new and more complex visual representations have

been invented for new phenomena, in mathematics for example through the 18 th and

19th century standardization of western notation, the relationship between the

objects and the notation in both fields is different. For music, the notation will be

always both a means and an end, constantly fluctuating between being in-itself, and

its transformation into sound. Notation can create new sound as well as it is

dependable on the sound it creates. Mathematics has a different relationship with its
objects. It appears to be either shaped by them or merely represent them. It is either

pure means or pure ends.