Vi Hart Uses Her Video Magic to Demystify Stravinsky and Schoenberg’s 12-Tone Compositions

Having one of those mornings where you wake up thinking it’d be “awesome” if you jazzed up Stravinsky’s atonal musical setting of Edward Lear’s famous nonsense poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat“?

You are? Wow! What luck! Apparently Recreational Mathemusician Vi Hart had the exact same kind of morning recently, and used it as the springboard for addressing the 12-Tone Technique originally devised by Arnold Schoenberg. Uninitiated philistines may want to double down on the caffeinated beverage of their choice, as this stuff is dense, and Hart talks the way a hummingbird flies.

But as she notes at the 15 minute mark, “Creativity means fearlessly embracing things that seem odd, even random, knowing that if you keep your brain open you’ll eventually find the connections.”

Ergo, those of us whose reference level (or, it must be said, interest) is no match for a 30 minute treatise on the history and logic of ordering the twelve pitch-classes of the chromatic scale into numerically designated sets should find something to chew on, too: copyright and Fair Use Law, for starters; the constraint-bound experimental fiction of French literary group Oulipo, not to mention Borges’ “Library of Babel” and the organized randomness of Rorschach blots and constellations; zombies… John Cage…

(Easy to imagine the sort of jacked-up, explanation-crazed, bed-resistant child she must have been.)

As ever, her sharpie-on-spiral stop-motion visuals add dimension, especially now that she seems to be experimenting with giving her on-the-fly stick figures a certain Hyperbole-and-a-Half exuberance.

For good measure, we’ve added a conventional video primer on the 12 Tone Technique by The New York Times below.

H/T Hannes

Related Content:

Mathemusician Vi Hart Explains the Space-Time Continuum With a Music Box, Bach, and a Möbius Strip

Math Doodling

Interviews with Schoenberg and Bartók

Ayun Halliday would’ve resorted to Vi Hart’s snake drawing technique had this been a live lecture. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (6)
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  • Flower Venice says:

    i need a museum so bad you colud not possibly imagine how much i miss color !!! i was going every day. please teach me more about physics metaphors stars deconstructing meaning words new structures i need to know ALL ABOUT THIS! please contact me once a day via facebook, i have needed to unlock this melody from me to see picasso like a new sort of sensitivity… 12 tones all these composers one composer a day and elaborate on atoms related to composers quantum electrodynamics new vocabulary, i appreciate your thought all the “trouble” you took i feel the stars and melodies are in a sacred pattern that is unlocked through geometry… in ,my art. please contact me again soon…

  • zazuka says:

    this is so awesome! thanks for posting and for introducing us to vi hart!

  • Raven Luni says:

    I both understand this and am in awe of it. You have one of the most beautiful minds I’ve seen!

  • Linda says:

    Brilliantly creative, instructive, inspiring, and highly entertaining!

  • Jonas says:


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