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Pythagoras was important to both mathematicians and musicians.

Greek, 6th century B.C.E.

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2:1 = octave 3:2 = fth 4:3 = fourth

Pythagoras figured out that certain musical intervals are related to each other by simple whole number ratios.

simple, whole number ratios

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music of the spheres celestial bodies move in proportions equivalent to pure musical intervals
It was tempting to think that everything in the universe could be summed up neatly. This view persisted for centuries.

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physical ratios
695 mm

Lets look at physical ratios, such as string length on a cello. A string is measured in mms.

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695 = 347.5 2

695 = 231.66 3
1/2 the string & 1/3 the string Those numbers are getting awkward.

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we measure with touch and sound

Luckily, when we play, we dont use those kinds of measurements, we go by what we hear and feel.

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string (or pipe) length

By playing the note that occurs at 1/2 the string length, we find that Pythagoras was right.

L = one pitch

1 2

L = one octave higher

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utes of different lengths

I made a set of flutes from PVC pipe. They dont sound great, but they illustrate the Pythagorean ratios.


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ute = 27 long

Aarons flute is 27 long, so his piccolo, which plays an octave higher, should be 13.5 long. It isnt. Can you guess why?

piccolo = 12.5 long

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ute =


The t wo instruments arent quite the same shape on the inside, which affects their pitch/length ratio.

cone piccolo

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measure of pitch = frequency

vibrations per second
Each pitch has its own frequency, which is the number of times it vibrates per second, named after Heinrich Hertz.

or Hertz

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One example of a tuning fork. If you strike it and look at it closely, you can see that it looks blurry--its vibrating very fast.

A440 vibrates 440 times per second


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frequency ratios: if X = one pitch 2 X = one octave higher


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string (or pipe) length



inversely proportional
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2:1 = octave
Pythagoras used these t wo ratios to find all the notes within one octave. He was very clever.

2X frequency

3:2 = fth
1.5 X frequency

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1. From the starting note of C, he found G, a fifth higher. Then he found a fifth above G, which was D, but it was outside the octave.

2. Its easy to find an octave lower than D, just divide its frequency in half. From D he went up to A, then up to E, which again had to drop down an octave. Repeat....

a fth

a fth

an octave



3. Now youre ready for a math problem.

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math problem: calculator allowed

rst notes frequency X 1.5 = 2nd note (fth) 2nd note X 1.5 = 3rd note (fth) 3rd note 2 = octave lower that frequency X 1.5 = 4th note, etc do this 12 times (circle of 5ths)

last is NOT an exact 2:1 ratio to rst

hence, all pianos are slightly out of tune
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the complicated world of tuning

12th root of 2 (1.0594630943593...)
Most pianos are tuned using frequency X 12th root of 2 (a truly magical number!) to find the next semi-tone, so the octave comes out even. This is called equal tempered tuning.

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