There’s a long and companionable history between music and mathematics. While it is often said that every culture has its own form of music, it’s also nearly just as true that most ancient cultures explored the mathematical principles of sound. Leave it to the Pythagoreans of Ancient Greece to notice the relationship between musical scales and mathematical ratios.
How music and science intersect is a more modern inquiry. Fields like neuroscience and modern medicine and technology make both the roots of music and cognition, as well as how science can inspire music, a crackling frontier.
Channel 4 in England aired a new documentary When Björk Met Attenborough on July 27th with—who better?—naturalist David Attenborough as host. Attenborough, who was famously granted privileged access to film Dian Fossey’s research on mountain gorillas, teams up with a less elusive but fascinating figure this time around. Attenborough actually co-hosts the program with Björk.
Björk's album Biophilia is the launching-off point for the documentary. It’s an apt choice. Björk has called live performances of music on the album a “meditation on the relationship between music, nature, and technology.”
New instruments were specially designed for the album and the songs are conceptually wedded to natural phenomena. “Moon” features musical repeating musical cycles; “Thunderbolt” includes arpeggios inspired by the time between the moment when lightening is seen and thunder is heard.
In the documentary, Attenborough explores how music exists in the natural world, taking viewers through the filming of the Reed Warbler and Blue Whales. For her part, Björk argues that cutting-edge technology keeps music intuitive and accessible. Featured are the instruments Björk developed for Biophilia: the “pendulum harp,” the “sharpsichord” and the “gameleste,” a combination gamelan and celesta programmed to be played remotely on an iPad.
You can watch the documentary above.