You are on page 1of 3

Where Math meets Music

Ever wonder why some note combinations sound pleasing to our ears, while others make us
cringe? To understand the answer to this question, youll first need to understand the wave
patterns created by a musical instrument When you pluck a string on a guitar, it vibrates back
and forth This causes mechanical energy to travel through the air, in waves The number of
times per second these waves hit our ear is called the !frequency This is measured in "ert#
$abbreviated "#% The more waves per second the higher the pitch &or instance, the ' note
below middle ( is at ))* "# Middle ( is at about )+) "#
,ow, to understand why some note combinations sound better, lets first look at the wave
patterns of ) notes that sound good together -ets use middle ( and the . /ust above it as an
,ow lets look at two notes that sound terrible together, ( and &21
3o you notice the difference between these two? Why is the first !consonant and the second
!dissonant? ,otice how in the first graphic there is a repeating pattern1 every 4
wave of the .
matches up with every )
wave of the ( $and in the second graphic how there is no pattern%
This is the secret for creating pleasing sounding note combinations1 &requencies that match up at
regular intervals $5 6 7lease see footnote about complications to this rule%
,ow lets look at a chord, to find out why its notes sound good together "ere are the
frequencies of the notes in the ( Ma/or chord $starting at middle (%1
( 8 )+9+ "#
E 8 4):+ "#
. 8 4:)* "#
The ratio of E to ( is about ;<=ths This means that every ;
wave of the E matches up with
every =
wave of the ( The ratio of . to E is about ;<=ths as well The ratio of . to ( is about
4<) >ince every notes frequency matches up well with every other notes frequencies $at regular
intervals% they all sound good together?
,ow lets look at the ratios of the notes in the ( Ma/or key in relation to (1
( 8 9
3 8 :<@
E 8 ;<=
& 8 =<4
. 8 4<)
' 8 ;<4
A 8 9B<:
To tell you the truth, these are approximate ratios Cemember when D said the ratio of E to ( is
about 5/4ths? The actual ratio is not 9); $;<=ths% but 9);:: Why isnt this ratio perfect? Thats
a good question When the 9)6note !western6style scale was created, they wanted not only the
ratios to be in tune, but they also wanted the notes to go up in equal si#ed /umps >ince they
couldnt have both at the same time, they settled on a compromise "ere are the actual
frequencies for the notes in the ( Ma/or Eey1
,ote 7erfect Catio to ( 'ctual Catio to
Catio off by &requency in "#
Middle (

3 :<@ or 99); 99))= ***)+ ):4B
E ;<= or 9); 9);:: ***:: 4):+
& =<4 or 9444F 944=@ ***9; 4=:)
. 4<) or 9; 9=:@4 ***9B 4:)*
' ;<4 or 9+++F 9+@9@ **9;) ==**
A 9B<: or 9@@@F 9@@BB ****4 =:4:
Gou can see that the ratios are not perfect, but pretty close The biggest difference is in the ( to
' ratio Df the ratio was perfect, the frequency of the ' above middle ( would be =4+*= "#, which
is off from Hequal temperamentH by about 4:+ "#
The previous list shows only the B notes in the ( Ma/or key, not all 9) notes in the octave Each
note in the 9) note scale goes up an equal amount, that is, an equal amount exponentially
"ere is the equation to figure out the "# of a note1
"ert# $number of vibrations a second% I +@B; 0 ) J $ $ 4 K MD3DL7itch % < 9) %
The J symbol means !to the power of The MD3DL7itch value is according to the MD3D standard,
where middle ( equals +*, and the ( an octave below it equals =@ 's an e0ample, lets figure
the hert# for middle (1
"ert# I +@B; 0 ) J $ $ 4 K +* % < 9) % I +@B; 0 ) J ;); I )+9+);;
The ne0t note up, (2, is1
"ert# I +@B; 0 ) J $ $ 4 K +9 % < 9) % I )BB9@)+
'nd the ne0t note, 3, is1
"ert# I +@B; 0 ) J $ $ 4 K +) % < 9) % I ):4++=@
The /ump between ( and (2 is 9;;+ "ert#, the /ump between (2 and 3 is 9+=@ "ert#
'lthough the "ert# /ump is not equal between the notes, it is an equal /ump in the e0ponent
number and it sounds like an equal /ump to our ears going up the scale This gives a nice smooth
transition going up the scale
'nother important feature of the scale is that it /umps by ) times each octave The ' below
middle ( is at ))* "ert#, the ' above middle ( is at ==* "ert#, and the ' above that is at @@*
"ert# This means that you can move notes into different octaves and still have them sound
consonant &or instance, lets take the case of middle ( and . again, e0cept move . into the
ne0t octave We still have middle ( at )+9+"#, but . is now at B@= "# That gives a ratio from .
to ( of about 4<9 $twice the original ratio of 4<)% The waves still meet up at regular intervals and
they still sound consonant? 'nother nice feature of having an equal e0ponential /ump is that you
can start a scale on any note you wish, including the black keys &or instance, instead of
(,3,E,&,.,',A, you can start on, say, 32 and have 32,&,.,.2,'2,(,3 as your scale with the
same great sounding combinations of frequencies
't a certain point frequency ratios are too great to sound consonant Dt takes too many waves for
them to match up, and our ears /ust cant seem to find a regular pattern 't what point is this? The
simple answer is when the ratios numerator or denominator gets to about 94 &or instance, (2
has a frequency ratio to ( of about 9@<9Bths Thats /ust too many waves before they meet up,
and you can tell that immediately when you play them together
>o now youre thinking that we have a scale that goes up in even steps and has reasonably
accurate ratios, were all set, right? 'ctually, there are a lot of dissenting opinions on the sub/ect
Cemember those not6quite6accurate ratios? Mne reason for this was for instruments to be able to
be tuned once, and sound reasonably good in all keys >ome of the grumpier musicians still
complain, though, saying that equal temperament makes all keys sound equally bad Df you tune
to /ust one particular key, you can get those ratios perfect $since the human ear can detect a
difference of 9"#, being off by several "# can be a problem?%
Maybe more importantly, though, is that there are a lot of undiscovered frequency combinations
that cant be played in the confining 9)6note system Many alternative scales used in Dndia have
up to )) notes per octave Df youre not satisfied with the standard western scale, there are lot of
alternative tuning methods available, such as HNust DntonationH and H-ucy TuningH With modern
digital equipment, these alternate tunings have become much easier to implement We should
hear some new and incredibly interesting music come out of these tuning methods as they are
gradually accepted into the mainstream