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Mathematical Harmonies

Mark Petersen

What is music? When you hear a flutist, a signal is sent from her fingers to your ears. As

the flute is played, it vibrates. The vibrations travel through the air and vibrate your

eardrums. These vibrations are fast oscillations in air pressure, which your ear detects as

sound.

The Basics

The simplest model of a musical sound is a sine wave, were the domain (x-axis) is time

and the range (y-axis) is pressure.

P

where:

P

t

A

f

T

A sin( 2 ft )

time, in seconds

amplitude (height of the wave) or volume, in decibels or Pascals

frequency or pitch, in hertz.

period, in seconds is the duration of one wave. T 1 f

T = 0.01 sec

In general, a sound has two characteristics: pitch and volume. The pitch, or note played,

corresponds to the frequency of the wave. High notes have high frequencies, so the

pressure varies quickly. Low notes have low frequencies. Frequency is measured in

Hertz (Hz), which is the number of waves per second.

Figure 2. Two notes, both with amplitude A = 60 dB. The lower note has frequency

f = 100 Hz (solid). The higher note has frequency f = 125 Hz (dashed).

PIANO

VIOLIN

TUBA

PICCOLO

SOPRANO

ALTO

TENOR

10000

6000

8000

4000

3000

2000

600

800

1000

400

300

200

100

60

80

40

30

20

10

BASS

range from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.

Volume, or loudness, corresponds to the amplitude of the pressure. When one hears loud

music, like at a rock concert, the large pressure oscillations may be felt by the body.

Both notes have a frequency of f = 100 Hz.

3

Pressure is normally measured in Pascals, which is force per unit area (1 Pa = 1 N/m2).

As shown in Figure 5, most sounds are less than _ Pa, while loud ones are between 5 and

10. The decibel scale is a log pressure scale, which is used for volume so that the quiet

sounds are spread out. Pascals are converted to decibels as follows:

p dB

20 * log

p Pa

2 10

threshold. This is where the p dB is zero, because when p Pa 2 10 5 Pa , we have

p dB 20 * log 1 0 .

In order to understand why certain combinations of notes make harmony and others do

not, we will study the simplest instrument, a single string. The formula for the frequency

of a vibrating string is

1

tension

frequency

2 * length line density

where:

length is in meters

tension is a force, in Newtons = kg*m/sec2

line density is the string thickness, in kg/m

2. Use a thicker string:

3. Use fingers on frets1:

tension

line density

length

results in:

results in:

results in:

frequency

frequency

frequency

Specifically, frequency is inversely proportional to the length of the string. This means if

I halve the length of the string, the frequency will double. It turns out that a doubled

frequency is an octave higher. Using these facts, we may construct the following chart.

Note

Frequency

f = 55 Hz

low low A

f = 110 Hz

low A

f = 220 Hz

middle A

f = 440 Hz

1/2

1/4

1/8

4

Figure 6. Octaves of a vibrating string.

The sequence of frequencies of these octaves: 55, 110, 220, 440, is a geometric

sequence. A geometric sequence is a sequence where the previous term is multiplied by a

constant. In this case, the constant is two. A very simple example of a geometric

sequence is 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, If this sequence were graphed, it would look like an

exponential function.

The important point here is:

The frequencies of octaves form a geometric sequence.

This fact has many physical manifestations, such as:

Low instruments must be much larger than high instruments. In general, an

instrument which is an octave lower must be twice as large. For example, in the

string family, as we progress from violin, viola, cello, to bass, the cello is large and

the bass is very large.

Organ pipes must also double in size to go down an octave. This is why the organ

pipes at the front of a church, if arranged in descending order, approximate an

exponential curve.

Frets on a guitar are far apart at the neck and close together near the body, a pattern

which also appears on log graphing paper. Frets and log paper both follow an inverse

exponential pattern.

If we could watch our simple string vibrate with a slow motion camera, we would see

that it vibrates in many modes, as shown below. The main mode is the fundamental

frequency or first harmonic, and gives the note its specified frequency. The string may

vibrate in higher modes, or harmonics, at various times or simultaneously.

Note

Frequency

Harmonic

f = 55 Hz

fundamental

low low A

f = 110 Hz

second

low E

f = 165 Hz

third

low A

f = 220 Hz

fourth

f = 275 Hz

fifth

middle E

f = 330 Hz

sixth

approx. middle G

f = 385 Hz

seventh

middle A

f = 440 Hz

eighth

middle C

1/2

1/3

1/4

1/5

1/6

5

Figure 7. Harmonics of a vibrating string.

The sequence of frequencies of these harmonics: 55, 110, 165, 220, 275, form an

arithmetic sequence. An arithmetic sequence is a sequence where a constant is added to

the previous term. In this case, the constant is 55. A simple example of an arithmetic

sequence is 2, 4, 6, 8, 10,

To summarize our important points,

The frequencies of octaves form a geometric sequence.

The frequencies of harmonics form an arithmetic sequence.

Let us overlay an arithmetic sequence (harmonics) on a geometric sequence (the octaves):

Arithmetic (harmonics)

Geometric (octaves)

2

2

4

4

one

8

8

10

12

14

three

16

16

18

20

seven

Notice that the number of arithmetic terms between each geometric is 0, 1, 3, 7, Figure 9.

shows the harmonics of low low low A, which have the same relation.

Harmonics

zero

one

three

seven

Figure 9. Harmonics of low low low A (as on Figure 7) shown as vertical lines below the

keyboard. Frequencies are shown above the keyboard.

You may have noticed that the harmonics of A include C# and E, which are the notes of

an A-major chord. We will return to this issue after some diversions.

6

Harmonics of Instruments

Two characteristics of a musical sound are volume and pitch. How does one know the

difference between a flute and a violin, even when they play the same note and volume?

If we measured the air pressure near a flute, oboe, and violin all playing middle A

(440 Hz), it would look like this:

FLUTE

OBOE

VIOLIN

Figure 10. Pressure variations with time of a flute, oboe, and violin.

Their pressure signals look very different, even though the amplitude and fundamental

frequencies are all the same. This difference is caused by the relative amplitudes of the

higher harmonics. This can be seen when the volume of each harmonic is graphed

separately, as follows.

FLUTE

OBOE

VIOLIN

Figure 11. Amplitudes of the harmonics of a flute, oboe, and violin playing middle A2.

2

In advanced mathematics, these are called the Fourier coefficients of the wave forms in Figure 10.

Fourier Analysis is used to calculate these coefficients for a given signal.

7

Notice that the flutes harmonics consist mostly of the fundamental at 440 Hz and the

second harmonic at 880 Hz. When the air pressure near a flute is actually measured, we

see the sum of these two harmonics. This is equivalent to adding the two sine curves as

follows:

Fundamental: 440 Hz, 0.004 Pa = 46 dB

The third graph is the signature pressure wave of the flute (compare to Figure 10). The

same process could be used to produce the oboe and violin pressure waves, but the other

harmonics shown in Figure 11 must be added in.

Synthesized music imitates instruments by combining harmonics, just as we did for a

flute above. Synthesized music often sounds fake because its harmonics are constant,

while real music has harmonics that change subtly as the musician varies timbre, vibrato,

and phrasing.

8

Beats and Intervals

When two sine waves are played with nearly the same frequency, beats are made. These

beats can be heard by playing two guitar strings or flutes with one slightly flatter than the

other.

Two frequencies, 100 Hz and 110 Hz, both at 0.01 Pa

Notice how the two curves in the first graph vary between being aligned and in opposite

alignment. The summation curve in the second graph is doubled when these two graphs

are aligned and cancel out when they are in opposite alignment.

Beats are strongest when the frequency separation is between a half step and a minor

third. When the separation is smaller than this, the beats are too slow for the ear to

distinguish. When the separation is larger, the beats are too fast to hear. This is shown

graphically in Figure 14.

For physiological reasons, the human mind dislikes beats. We may therefore assume that

frequencies that are close enough to produce beats will not be harmonious. In fact, the

strength of these beats can be used to represent the consonance, or harmoniousness,

between two frequencies.

Our conclusion is

Frequencies close to each other create beats and sound bad (dissonance)

We may use this knowledge to investigate why certain combinations of notes sound

harmonious and others do not. First we must cover some music vocabulary. An interval

is the difference between two pitches. A third is an interval which is three steps above

the bass. For example, in the key of C major, E is the third, and G is the fifth (see Figure

16).

Returning to our keyboard, let us examine the harmonics of several intervals.

Octaves Harmonics of low low C and low C. Octaves sound like the same note because

all of their harmonics line up.

A B C D E F G A BC D E F G A BC D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E

Fifth Harmonics of C and G. Here every other harmonic lines up while the others are

not close enough to create beats. The interval of a fifth is very harmonious.

A B C D E F G A BC D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A BC D E

10

Third Harmonics of C and E. Many harmonics line up and most are not close enough to

create beats. The interval of a third is also harmonious.

A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A BC D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E

Diminished Fifth Harmonics of C and F#. Notice that no harmonics lines up and many

are close enough to create beats. This interval is dissonant (not harmonious).

A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A BC D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E

We can measure the dissonance of a pair of notes, like the C and F# above, as follows:

Look for all the harmonics of C that are within a half step of a harmonic of F#, but dont

line up exactly. These are starred above. The dissonance is high for a pair of notes that

have many of these close harmonics.

Because most of the harmonics of a third and fifth line up, these intervals have low

dissonance. The diminished fifth has high dissonance. Figure 15 shows a graph which

was constructed by testing many intervals for dissonance in this manner.

AMOUNT OF DISSONANCE

FREQUENCY RATIO

0

3/2

5/3

2/1

We have just shown that the major scale can be developed mathematically! Although

cultures of the world have many different scales, they all include some combination of

these intervals. Ancient cultures sang and played these intervals intuitively without

knowing about frequencies and harmonics.

11

Just and Equal Temperament

Because of the way the harmonics line up the frequency ratios of major intervals turn out

to be exact fractions, as shown in Figure 15. For example, the frequency of G is exactly

3/2 times that of C. Beginning with a frequency of 65.4 Hz for C, we may build the

major scale using these ratios.

Interval from C:

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

6th

7th

octave

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

Frequency ratio: 1

9/8

5/4

4/3

3/2

5/3

15/8 2

Frequency (Hz): 65.4 73.6 81.8 87.2 98.1 109

122.6 130.8

Ratio from one

1.125

(1.067)

1.111

(1.067)

note to the next:

1.111

1.125

1.125

Figure 16. Frequencies of notes in key of C in just temperament. Parenthesis

indicate half-steps.

This system of tuning is called just temperament because when these intervals are played

the harmonics line up and it sounds just perfect.

But perfection comes at a price. Notice that the whole note frequency ratios are 1.125 for

CD, FG and AB, but 1.111 for DE and GA. Suppose you had a flute tuned in just

temperament in the key of C. Then the harmonics line up perfectly in the key of C, but

not in any other key. For example, in the key of D the first ratio is 1.111, but it needs to

be 1.125. With just temperament, your flute is only good in one key!

Just temperament instruments were the standard until the 1700s. A flutist would have

had to own several flutes each tuned to a different key. Likewise, harpsichords had to

have several keyboards for different keys. Vocalists and stringed instruments without

frets are unaffected, because the pitch is not hardwired into the instrument but may be

chosen exactly.

In the 18th century Bach and other musicians advocated a new tuning standard. In equal

temperament the ratio for each step is always the same. The harmonics of an equal

tempered instrument do not exactly line up. This is a small sacrifice, as only trained

musicians can hear the difference. In return for almost perfect we get instruments that

can play in every key. Modern instruments use equal temperament.

12

Interval from C:

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

6th

7th

octave

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

Frequency (Hz): 65.4 73.4 82.4 87.3 98

110 123.5

130.8

Ratio from one

1.122

(1.059)

1.122

(1.059)

note to the next:

1.122

1.122

1.122

Figure 17. Frequencies of notes in key of C in equal temperament.

In equal temperament the frequency ratio for a whole step is always 1.122, which is

between the 1.125 and 1.111 found in the just temperament scale. This number is arrived

at as follows.

There are 12 half steps in an octave, and an octaves frequency ratio is 2.

12

2 1.059

The frequency ratio of each half step is:

The frequency ratio of each whole step is:

2 1.122

Conclusion

The mathematics of harmonics and vibrating strings is a beautiful example of the

mathematics that surrounds us every day. Music, one of our most ancient and universal

traditions, is at once quantifiable and emotional, both mathematical and moving. My

hope is that this introduction can show students that math is not dry and boring, but

exciting, intriguing, and fun.

References

Johnston, Ian, Measured Tones, The interplay of physics and music, Hilger, NY, 1989

Pierce, John R., The Science of Musical Sound, Scientific American Library, NY, 1983

Sundberg, Johan, The Science of Musical Sounds, Academic Press, San Diego, 1991

Created July 2001.

Please send comments to Mark Petersen, Mark.Petersen@colorado.edu

Overheads, musical examples, and Mathematica files may be found at

amath.colorado.edu/outreach/demos/music

Figures: 3. Johnston p. 36 5. Sundberg p. 21 9. Pierce p. 21 10. Johnston p. 100

11. Johnston p. 107 14. Sundberg p. 73 15. Johnston p. 256

Graphs made with Maple 5.5, document in MS Word 97.

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