John Coltrane Draws a Picture Illustrating the Mathematics of Music

Physicist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander has argued in his many public lectures and his book The Jazz of Physics that Albert Einstein and John Coltrane had quite a lot in common. Alexander in particular draws our attention to the so-called “Coltrane circle,” which resembles what any musician will recognize as the “Circle of Fifths,” but incorporates Coltrane’s own innovations. Coltrane gave the drawing to saxophonist and professor Yusef Lateef in 1967, who included it in his seminal text, Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Where Lateef, as he writes in his autobiography, sees Coltrane's music as a "spiritual journey" that "embraced the concerns of a rich tradition of autophysiopsychic music," Alexander sees “the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s" quantum theory.

Neither description seems out of place. Musician and blogger Roel Hollander notes, “Thelonious Monk once said ‘All musicans are subconsciously mathematicians.’ Musicians like John Coltrane though have been very much aware of the mathematics of music and consciously applied it to his works.”

Coltrane was also very much aware of Einstein’s work and liked to talk about it frequently. Musican David Amram remembers the Giant Steps genius telling him he “was trying to do something like that in music.”

Hollander carefully dissects Coltrane's mathematics in two theory-heavy essays, one generally on Coltrane’s “Music & Geometry” and one specifically on his “Tone Circle.” Coltrane himself had little to say publically about the intensive theoretical work behind his most famous compositions, probably because he’d rather they speak for themselves. He preferred to express himself philosophically and mystically, drawing equally on his fascination with science and with spiritual traditions of all kinds. Coltrane’s poetic way of speaking has left his musical interpreters with a wide variety of ways to look at his Circle, as jazz musician Corey Mwamba discovered when he informally polled several other players on Facebook. Clarinetist Arun Ghosh, for example, saw in Coltrane's "mathematical principles" a "musical system that connected with The Divine." It's a system, he opined, that "feels quite Islamic to me."


Lateef agreed, and there may be few who understood Coltrane’s method better than he did. He studied closely with Coltrane for years, and has been remembered since his death in 2013 as a peer and even a mentor, especially in his ecumenical embrace of theory and music from around the world. Lateef even argued that Coltrane's late-in-life masterpiece A Love Supreme might have been titled "Allah Supreme" were it not for fear of "political backlash." Some may find the claim tendentious, but what we see in the wide range of responses to Coltrane's musical theory, so well encapsulated in the drawing above, is that his recognition, as Lateef writes, of the "structures of music" was as much for him about scientific discovery as it was religious experience. Both for him were intuitive processes that "came into existence," writes Lateef, "in the mind of the musican through abstraction from experience."

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Behold the Ingenious “Ambiguous Cylinder Illusion” (and Then Find Out How It Works)

Created by Kokichi Sugihara, a math professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, the “Ambiguous Cylinder Illusion” wowed audiences at "the Best Illusion of the Year Contest" in 2016. Here's the general gist of the illusion:

The direct views of the objects and their mirror images generate quite different interpretations of the 3D shapes. They look like vertical cylinders, but their sections appear to be different; in one view they appear to be rectangles, while in the other view they appear to be circles. We cannot correct our interpretations although we logically know that they come from the same objects. Even if the object is rotated in front of a viewer, it is difficult to understand the true shape of the object, and thus the illusion does not disappear.

So how do those rectangles look like circles, and vice-versa? The video below--if you care to spoil the illusion--will show you. Find more videos from the Illusion Contest here.

via The Kids Should See This

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How Did Beethoven Compose His 9th Symphony After He Went Completely Deaf?

You don’t need to know anything at all about classical music, nor have any liking for it even, to be deeply moved by that most famous of symphonies, Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th---“perhaps the most iconic work of the Western musical tradition,” writes The Juilliard Journal in an article about its handwritten score. Commissioned in 1817, the sublime work was only completed in 1824. By that time, its composer was completely and totally deaf. At the first performance, Beethoven did not notice that the massive final choral movement had ended, and one of the musicians had to turn him around to acknowledge the audience.

This may seem, says researcher Natalya St. Clair in the TED-Ed video above, like some “cruel joke,” but it’s the truth. Beethoven was so deaf that some of the most interesting artifacts he left behind are the so-called “conversation books,” kept from 1818 onward to communicate with visitors who had to write down their questions and replies. How then might it have been possible for the composer to create such enduringly thrilling, rapturous works of aural art?

Using the delicate, melancholy “Moonlight Sonata” (which the composer wrote in 1801, when he could still hear), St. Clair attempts to show us how Beethoven used mathematical “patterns hidden beneath the beautiful sounds.” (In the short video below from documentary The Genius of Beethoven, see the onset of Beethoven's hearing loss in a dramatic reading of his letters.) According to St. Clair’s theory, Beethoven composed by observing “the mathematical relationship between the pitch frequency of different notes,” though he did not write his symphonies in calculus. It’s left rather unclear how the composer's supposed intuition of mathematics and pitch corresponds with his ability to express such a range of emotions through music.

We can learn more about Beethoven's deafness and its biological relationship to his compositional style in the short video below with research fellow Edoardo Saccenti and his colleague Age Smilde from the Biosystems Data Analysis Group at Amsterdam’s Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences. By counting the high and low frequencies in Beethoven’s complete string quartets, a task that took Saccenti many weeks, he and his team were able to show how three distinct compositional styles “correspond to stages in the progression of his deafness,” as they write in their paper (which you can download in PDF here).

The progression is unusual. As his condition worsened, Beethoven included fewer and fewer high frequency sounds in his compositions (giving cellists much more to do). By the time we get to 1824-26, “the years of the late string quartets and of complete deafness”---and of the completion of the 9th---the high notes have returned, due in part, Smilde says, to “the balance between an auditory feedback and the inner ear.” Beethoven’s reliance on his “inner ear” made his music “much and much richer.” How? As one violinist in the clip puts it, he was “given more freedom because he was not attached anymore to the physical sound, [he could] just use his imagination.”

For all of the compelling evidence presented here, whether Beethoven’s genius in his painful later years is attributable to his intuition of complex mathematical patterns or to the total free reign of his imaginative inner ear may in fact be undiscoverable. In any case, no amount of rational explanation can explain away our astonishment that the man who wrote the unfailingly powerful, awesomely dynamic “Ode to Joy” finale (conducted above by Leonard Bernstein), couldn’t actually hear any of the music.

Related Content:

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Slavoj Žižek Examines the Perverse Ideology of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy Played With 167 Theremins Placed Inside Matryoshka Dolls in Japan

Leonard Bernstein Conducts Beethoven’s 9th in a Classic 1979 Performance

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Sesame Street’s Count Von Count counts Pi to 10,000 Places: A 5 Hour Recording for Pi Day

March 14 is Pi Day. This oddity will keep the celebration going a good part of the day.

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The Map of Mathematics: Animation Shows How All the Different Fields in Math Fit Together

Back in December, you hopefully thoroughly immersed yourself in The Map of Physics, an animated video--a visual aid for the modern age--that mapped out the field of physics, explaining all the connections between classical physics, quantum physics, and relativity.

You can't do physics without math. Hence we now have The Map of Mathematics. Created by physicist Dominic Walliman, this new video explains "how pure mathematics and applied mathematics relate to each other and all of the sub-topics they are made from." Watch the new video above. You can buy a poster of the map here. And you can download a version for educational use here.

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Watch 100 Randomly Ticking Metronomes Achieve Synchronicity

It’s always satisfying to impose order on chaos, especially if it doesn’t involve bellowing at a roomful of jacked up teenagers.

Witness the experiment above.

Members of Ikeguchi Laboratory, a Japanese organization dedicated to the analysis and prediction of nonlinear phenomena, placed 100 randomly ticking metronomes on a hanging platform, curious as to how long it would take them to synchronize.

(SPOILER ALERT! They start synching up around the 1 minute, 20 second mark.)

How? Why? Is this some mystical, musical variant of menstrual synchrony?

Nope. Physics is doing the heavy lifting here.

The key is that the platform holding the metronomes is not fixed. It affects their movement by moving in response to theirs.

To put it another way, KE = 0.5 • m • v2. Which is to say Kinetic Energy = 0.5 • mass of object • (speed of object)2.

If you're looking for another scientific explanation, here's how Gizmodo puts it: "the metronomes are transferring energy to the platform they’re on, which then transfers that energy back to the metronomes—until they all sync up and start hitting the beat in one glorious wavelength."

By the two and a half minute mark, some viewers will be raring to delve into further study of energy transference.

Others, their brains imploding, may elect to downshift into a purely auditory experience.

Close your eyes and listen as the last hold outs fall into rhythmic step with the rest of the herd. A pleasantly harmonious sound, not unlike that moment when a roomful of jacked up teens simmers down, achieving the sort of blissful hive mind that’s a balm to teacher’s frazzled soul.

Craving more?  Ikeguchi Laboratory also filmed their metronomes in triangular, circular and X-shaped formations, available for your viewing pleasure on the lab’s YouTube channel.

via The Kid Should See This

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Trainwreck: The Teach to One Math Experiment in Mountain View, CA Is a Cautionary Tale About the Perils of Digital Math Education


Image via Wikimedia Commons

I live in Silicon Valley, which operates on the assumption that there's no problem that technology can't solve. It suffuses our culture here, and sometimes we pay the price for this technocratic utopianism. Case in point: Right now, I'm sending my kid to a public school in Mountain View, CA--the home of Google--where the administrators have upended the entire sixth grade math program. Last August, they abolished the traditional math program--you know, where students get to sit in a classroom and learn from a trained and qualified math teacher. And instead the administrators asked students to learn math mainly from a computer program called Teach to One. Run by a venture called New ClassroomsTeach to One promises to let each student engage in "personalized learning," where a computer program gauges each student's knowledge of math, then continually customizes the math education that students receive. It all sounds like a great concept. Bill Gates has supposedly called it the "Future of Math Education." But the rub is this: Teach to One doesn't seem ready for the present. And our kids are paying the price.

A new article featured in our local paper, The Mountain View Voice, outlines well the problems that students and parents have experienced with the Teach to One program. I would encourage any parent or educator interested in the pitfalls of these "innovative" math programs to give the article a good look. (Update: The Mountain View Voice has done a series of excellent articles on the Teach to One experiment in Mountain View and all that went wrong. They're all listed below.)

If you read the article, here's what you will learn. The Mountain View school district apparently budgeted $521,000 to implement and operate this new-fangled math program in two local schools (Graham and Crittenden Middle Schools). Had they adequately beta tested the program beforehand, the school district might have discovered that Teach to One teaches math--we have observed--in a disjointed, non-linear and often erratic fashion that leaves many students baffled and disenchanted with math. The program contains errors in the math it teaches. Parents end up having to teach kids math at home and make up for the program's deficiencies. And all the while, the math teachers get essentially relegated to "managing the [Teach to One] program rather than to providing direct instruction" themselves.

By October, many parents started to register individual complaints with the school district. By December, 180 parents signed a letter meticulously outlining the many problems they found with the Teach to One program. (You can read that letter here.) When the school later conducted a survey on Teach to One (review it here), 61% of the parents "said they do not believe the program matches the needs of their children," and test scores show that this crop of sixth graders has mastered math concepts less well than last year's. (Note: there was a big decrease in the number of kids who say they love math, and conversely a 413% increase in the number of kids who say they hate math.) Given the mediocre evaluation, the parents have asked for one simple thing--the option to let their kids learn math in a traditional setting for the remainder of the year, until it can be demonstrated that Teach to One can deliver better results. (Teach to One would ideally continue as a smaller pilot, where the kinks would get worked out.) So far the school district, headed by Ayindé Rudolph, has continued to champion the Teach to One program in finely-spun bureaucratic letters that effectively disregard parental concerns and actual data points. But the schools have now agreed to let students spend 5o% of their time learning math with Teach to One, and the other 50% learning math from a qualified teacher. Why the impractical half measure? I can only speculate.

I posted this so that interested parents and educators, wherever you live, can be prudent and thoughtful when it comes to adopting computer-driven math programs. Perhaps you can learn something from our cautionary tale. Do your research, run a controlled pilot, and make sure the product is actually a good fit for your school. Again, I would encourage you to read the fine article in The Mountain View Voice, the parents' letter outlining the observed deficiencies in the Teach to One program, and the eye-opening survey results on Teach to One.

Update: It was announced on January 12 that the Mountain View will discontinue the Teach to One math pilot effective immediately.  Patronizingly, New Classrooms has attributed the scrapping of the pilot to a communication problem. “There was a subset of parents of higher-achieving students who didn’t fully understand how Teach to One operated and how much it benefited their children,” Joel Rose is quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal. Once again, I'd refer you back to the actual data collected by our schools. It speaks for itself.

Great Articles by The Mountain View Voice: Mountain View's local paper has done some excellent reporting on this fiasco. I would encourage you to read them all.

This story has also received coverage from The Wall Street Journal and Edsurge

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