You are on page 1of 12

Page |1

Introduction
I have chosen to investigate the mathematical properties that surround music; more
specifically, classical piano. I have always had a deep appreciation for music, not only as a
listener, but also as a novice pianist. I enjoy listening to the great works of Bach, Chopin and
Beethoven, as well as many others. Recently, I have become interested in how a composer
can constantly and consistently produce such beautiful compositions. It was a mystery to
me how Beethoven, whilst becoming deaf, could still compose some of the most beautiful
music of all time. It came as quite a surprise that mathematics is a strong governing force in
the quality of music. Hence, I aim to explore and understand how mathematics relates to
music in terms of harmony.
I will focus in on the aspects of mathematics in relation to harmony in classical piano solely.
Although harmony is only one of the main aspects of music (the two others being melody
and rhythm), it is still very complex and interesting on its own.
This paper will be split into three parts. The first will cover a graphical representation of
notes and chords, examining what makes certain notes sound harmonic in groups. The
second part will investigate Pythagorass contributions to music as it relates to ratios, and
hence the development of the harmonic series. The third and final part will look into
probability.

Part 1: Graphing Notes and Chords with Sine Waves

A piano, similar to most other instruments, is built on the foundation of the octave
(series of 12 semitones ending on a note twice the frequency of the first notes tone). There
are 12 semitones (smallest interval in western classical music) in each octave. Each tone
inclusive is considered to produce a unique sound. As a result, each unique semitone (not a
repeated tone in a new octave) is given a representational letter. The octave the note is
located in is represented by a subscript number (ex: A4). On the piano, the scale range of
the white notes is A, B, C, D, E, F and G going left to right. The black notes are named
according to what key the music is in and what white note they relate to. They are given the
symbol (sharp or above) and (flat or below.) Here is a graphical representation of this:

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

Page |2

Image Source: http://music.lovetoknow.com/music-genres/printable-piano-keyboard-layout

Each semitone, or note, will produce a sound with a set frequency. This frequency is a
measure of pitch and is reported in Hertz or cycles per second (Hz). Each frequency,
audible or inaudible to humans, can be graphed in a two-dimensional plane as a sinusoidal
wave. We will be trying to observe a pattern in harmonic notes and chords through the
ratio of periods of each graph. The first step to visualizing these frequency patterns is to
graph a single note. We will begin with A4, a note that has a frequency of 440 Hz. The
equation for A4 is:
= (440 2)

Graphing as a sine function allows us to visualize the oscillation of the string, 2 gives us
the period interval which represents one second, 440 represents Hz and is our variable
for time. To observe the important aspects of the graph and to find the correct period ratios
we must scale down each equation by the same factor.

= (

2)
440

We have divided the Hz value (let Z = Hz) in the sine function by 440 in order to make the
function for note A scale to = (2). I have chosen to make A4 the normal function as
we will build our harmonic chords of note A4. We will apply this same transformation to
each notes equation in order to graph and observe proper ratios.
Hence we achieve the graph of the equation for note A4:

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

Page |3

= (2)
Before we graph our first harmonic chord we must note a few basic ideas. The wavelength
or period of the function is directly related to pitch: the shorter the wavelength, the higher
the pitch; the longer the wavelength, the lower the pitch.
Here is a graphical representation of A major (Notes A4, C, E and A5).

These are the equations that created this graph of A major. They were derived by inputting

Hz values into the general equation = (440 2).


440

A4: = (440 2)
659.25
2)
440

E: = (

554.37
2)
440

C: = (

880

A5: = (440 2)

From the graph we can see that all the functions intersect at the origin and come very close
to intersecting each other again at = 1,2,3 4. To better observe their relationship, we
can look at the relative ratios of periods compared to the benchmark of A4, as seen in the
following table.
Note
A4
C
E
A5

Semitones
from A
0
4
7
12

Elliot Falkner

Frequency
440
554.37
659.25
880

Period
1.00
0.794
0.667
0.500

Ratio to A
(1.00/period)
1.00
1.26
1.50
2

IB Mathematics SL

Ratios to A as
Fractions
11
63/50
3/2
2/1

6/14/2016

Page |4

In this harmonic chord we can see that each note that has harmony with A has a relatively
simple, whole number fraction ratio with exception of C: however, C has a ratio to A very
close to 1.25 which gives another simple fraction ratio, 5/4. We can make this exception
because the graph of C comes very close to intersection at intervals 2 and 4. These
nuances are crucial to observe in mathematical representations of music because values
are not exact, which makes proximity very important. Lets take another harmonic chord
and see if the same patterns emerge. This time we will use the chord A minor (Notes A4, C,
E and A5)

440
2)
440

A4: = (

659.25
2)
440

E: = (

523.25
2)
440

C: = (

880
2)
440

A5: = (

Note

Semitones
from A

Frequency

Period

Ratio to A
(1.00/period)

A4
C
E
A5

0
4
7
12

440
523.25
659.25
880

1.00
0.840
0.667
0.500

1.00
1.19
1.50
2

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

Ratio to A
as a
Fraction
1/1
119/100
3/2
2/1

6/14/2016

Page |5

In A minor we can see very identical results as in A major. Harmonic notes tend to have
simple period ratios. The case of C, similar to C, has a period ratio very close to 1.20 that
would result in a simple fraction ratio of 6/5.

To test the truth of the conjecture that harmonic chords have simple whole number ratios
when comparing period values, we will test the appositive, a dissonant chord. The
dissonant chord is A4, B, D and F (it does not have a given name as it is not a frequently
used chord).

440
2)
440

A: = (

D: = (

Note
A
B
D
F

Semitones
from A
0
1
6
8

622.25
2)
440

Frequency
440
493.88
622.25
698.46

Period
1.00
0.890
0.707
0.630

493.88
2)
440

B: = (

698.46
2)
440

F: = (

Ratio to A
(1.00/period)
1.00
1.12
1.41
1.59

Ratios to A as
Fractions
11
28/25
141/100
159/100

In the dissonant chord, we do not get simple, low, whole number fraction ratios as we do in
the harmonic chords. We cannot justify rounding simplification of the fractions either as

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

Page |6

the graph shows no common intersection of the waves. From this, we can conclude that,
indeed, the period ratios of different frequencies are a telling sign of them being harmonic;
simple is more harmonic, complex is more dissonant. This should make sense to us as
humans. Most people prefer when things are neat, clean and simple. This is what
Pythagoras predicted when he investigated the mathematics of music and this glorification
of the simple has led to the creation of the western classical style.
To explain cases of C and C we can say that the note is less harmonic to A than other notes
with simpler fraction ratios; however, it is very close to perfect harmony given its
proximity to a simple fraction ratio and common intersect point on the graph. This may be
the mark of a unique chord or the note that makes the chord stand out to the listener. While
a perfectly harmonious chord may sound good, it does not stand out the way a slightly off
chord may sound, it is unusual, it is different and it creates a unique feeling.
To summarize, harmonic notes in chords will generally have a simple period ratio to the
fundamental note. Notes close to a simple period ratio can give the chord a special sound
and character; however, if they are too complex or have periods far from the fundamental
they will sound with dissonance.

Part 2: Pythagoras and the Harmonic Series

The observations from the previous section can be backed up by statements by a famous
Greek mathematician, Pythagoras (570 BC - 495 BC). Pythagoras, known widely for his
theorem involving lengths of a right triangle, had a strong relationship with music.
Pythagoras was fascinated with the lyre, a common string instrument in Greek music. First,
he observed that when two strings of same length, tension and thickness were plucked they
produce a consonant sound. Second, he found that strings of different lengths produced
different pitches and generally dissonant sounds. Lastly, he realized that certain different
string lengths produced a consonant sound in pair: the relationship between these notes he
called, an interval. These intervals can be seen as the harmonic note combinations from the
previous section. Their names have been derived from the number of semitones they sit
from the fundamental. From this he determined the octave, the perfect fifth, the fourth and
so on. Each one of these consonant pairings was so because the length of the strings was in
a simple ratio: octave, 2:1; fifth, 3:2; fourth, 4:3; etc. These ratios are reversible and apply
to any type of string, hence they are relative ratios. Also, string length relates inversely to
frequency which allows for the conclusion that frequency should have the same ratio
relationship with harmony. Although Pythagoras knew that he could keep using larger
integers and continue the pattern, he also wanted to keep his mathematics simple. He
believed the simpler, the more correct.

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

Page |7

Fast forward to today, we now have a harmonic series that models Pythagoras
observations. The formula for the series looks like this:

=1

First lets make some observations. In this series we have going up to infinity which
means that we do not have at any point, the complete series. The series begins with the
1
term and increases by one in the denominator for subsequent terms. What we do not
1

know yet is if this series is divergent or convergent however, we can investigate this. We
will begin by writing out the first few terms.

= 1+

1 1 1 1 1 1 1
+ + + + + + +
2 3 4 5 6 7 8

We can see that each term is smaller than the previous one but is it small enough to
converge? We will check this by constructing a new series. One that has each term less than
or equal to the value of the corresponding term in the harmonic series. If each term is
smaller than the sum will be smaller as well. If our second series diverges, we can conclude,
by the comparison test, that the harmonic series diverges as well. To construct our new
1
series, we will make each term the largest power of 2 less than or equal to the
corresponding term in the harmonic series. The reason for picking one half is purely ease
and simplicity, any other number less than one and greater than zero could have been used
1
however, it is easiest to visualize a pattern 2 . This proof variation was created by French
mathematician, Nicole Oresme.

We begin with the first term of the harmonic series, 1. The largest power of 2 less than or
equal to 1 is 0. Hence, the first term of our new series is 1. The second term of the harmonic
1
1
1
series is 2. Again, the largest power of 2 less than or equal to 2
1

is 1. Hence, the second term of our new series is 2. The next term of the harmonic series is 3.
1

The largest power of 2 less than or equal to 3 is 2. So, the next term of the new series is 4.
We continue doing this to each term till we begin to see our series take form. Here is what
the new series looks like:

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

Page |8

1 1 1 1 1 1 1
=1+ + + + + + + +
2 4 4 8 8 8 8

As we constructed it, each of the terms in our new series is a positive value and less than or
equal to its corresponding term in the harmonic series. Now lets see if this series diverges.
We can start by simplifying our series.

1 1 1
=1+ + + +
2 2 2

If we are to continue adding terms of this new series, we will see that the sum of each part
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
of the series adds to 2. 2 terms of 4 add to 2, 4 terms of 8 add to 2, 8 terms of 16 add to 2, and
so on. If a series adds the same value to itself an infinite amount of times than that series
will diverge as such is the case for our new series. Therefore, since our new series is
divergent and is less than the harmonic series, we can assume, from the comparison test,
that the harmonic series diverges as well.

=1

1
=

The harmonic series is used all over in music. It is constantly being studied in theory and
used to improve systems of composition, performance and tuning. But what specifically
does this divergence mean to music and harmony? In fact, its divergence shows us a lot
about the world of music. We understand from it that simplistic relativity is a never ending
pattern that can always find harmony. The idea that this series carries on without end may
not seem of utmost importance in the real world but, it allows us to understand why our
finite patterns work. For example, it helps us understand why certain notes have special
relationships with others well beyond what the human ear can recognize. It also allows us
to understand why a piano can never truly be perfectly tuned. There are many other
practical applications of the harmonic series and its properties of divergence in music and
well outside of it and those deserve another entire paper of explanation. We know that this
special series extends to well beyond what humans are even capable of thinking about and
even its practical justifications do not define its reason. If we can take away anything, it is
most interesting, philosophically, to know that at every extreme, one can still find abundant
harmony.
Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

Page |9

Part 3: Probability of Harmony

For the last part we are going to go back to the piano. If you had no understanding
whatsoever of piano or music and you randomly played 3 notes in one octave, what is the
probability that you play a harmonic chord? First we have to recognize that each 3 note
combination, A through G, can be played in a major or a minor chord. These chords have
the same top and bottom notes but they differ by 1 semitone in the middle. Also, since the
probability of playing any chord is theoretically equal, we want to calculate the probability
of playing a major or minor chord comparative and multiply that probability into the
number of chords that are consonant. Lastly we must understand that a single note cannot
be played more than once. Here is a table that represents how to find notes in a chord:

Image Source: www.jonweinberg.com/music/Alt_Chord_Finder_Chart.pdf

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

P a g e | 10

We start with the probability of playing the correct base note for any one specific chord.
1
Since there are 12 semitones and only one is valid, our probability is 12. Next, the
probability that we play the correct middle note for the chord. This time there are 2 valid
notes since there are minor and major variations of each chord. Also since we have already
played the base note, we now can only choose from 11 notes. Our middle note probability
2
therefore becomes 11. The last probability we need is the top or final note. Since we have
used 3 notes, only 9 remain which gives us nine in the denominator. Since there is only 1
1
valid top note we are given the final probability of 9. Since these events are dependent, we
can do simple multiplication to find the probability of one specific minor or major
respective chord:

1
2 1

12 11 9

1
594

Since this is the probability of only 1 major or minor chord, we need to multiply this
probability by the number of possible major/minor chords.

1
12
594

2
99

This probability demonstrates that the likelihood of randomly playing a harmonic 3 note
chord is very low. Theoretically, it would take near 50 tries to play a correct consonant
2
combination as 99 50 > 1. This makes utmost sense as most unexperienced piano players
struggle initially to improvise. However, as they begin to learn the math and system behind
creating harmony: such as octaves, perfect fifths and fourths, partials, etc. their
improvisation begins to improve substantially. If anything this shows that music is truly a
fine art and one where specific values and numbers are involved deeply behind the scenes.

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

P a g e | 11

Conclusion

We have briefly explored sine waves and how they model the frequencies produced by
different tones on a normal 88 key piano. We observed that simpler ratios of periods
between notes produced a more consonant sound. We also saw that small variations in
perfect harmony are ever present in some of the most popular chords, perhaps an
indication of a musical personality. We also observed in our graphical exploration that
Pythagoras claims of simple being better resonate in the world of music. Not only do
simple ratios allow us to enjoy music, they also appear in beauty, nature and the
mathematics of everyday life. However, an important thing to consider about the model
used in this investigation is that ideal sine waves were used. String imperfections of any
other type of interference was not accounted for which likely yield a different set of results.
It would be interesting to take a look at more realistic waves to see if they have the exact
same harmonic behavior.
Adding on to our previously discussed patterns, we incorporated the idea of a series that
models the relationship between frequency and period length. This we saw as the
harmonic series. We were able to determine its properties, especially its divergence. From
this property we understand that although seemingly simple in the finite world, basic
patterns such as the Harmonic series can extend into more complex realms with logical
reason. Also, the Harmonic series lends to the question of how many other natural
phenomena are dictated by simple patterns in mathematics?
Finally, we explored probability. The likelihood that at random one could play a harmonic
or consonant chord. We found this probability to be quite low, unsurprisingly. However, we
note that if one truly understands the patterns behind the music, the probability can be
greatly and consistently increased. We see this apparent in the many works of Beethoven,
who although going deaf in his middle ages, he was still able to produce incredibly beautiful
compositions that incorporated perfect harmony and a strong sense of emotion.
This exploration helped me to understand more about series and limits, probability and the
behavior of sine graphs. In abstract, I have a new understanding of how mathematics
relates to reality in simplicity and importantly, in imperfection. For one to further these
mathematical investigations, need not look farther than music theory. This ever evolving
science uses the power of patterns described in mathematics to achieve a deeper
understanding of music. One could explore the area under our harmonic series if it was
modeled in a curve using integrals. One could combine the psychology of piano note
choosing and get a more realistic understanding of consonant probability. There are many
facets in the mathematical regions of music which we have yet to scrape the surface of and
they are only waiting to be discovered.

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016

P a g e | 12

Bibliography

www.sscc.edu/home/jdavidso/music/musicnotes/musicnotes.html
-

Graphs of frequencies

www.aboutscotland.com/harmony/prop.html
-

Pythagoras history and musical involvement

www.phys.uconn.edu/~gibson/Notes/Section3_2/Sec3_2.htm
-

Pythagorean interval information

scipp.ucsc.edu/~haber/archives/physics116A10/harmapa.pdf
-

Comprehensive detail of various harmonic series divergence proofs

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octave
-

Octave explanation

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semitone
-

Semitone explanation and examples

www.phy.mtu.edu/~suits/notefreqs.html
-

Frequencies of musical notes

Graphs Courtesy of Desmos

Elliot Falkner

IB Mathematics SL

6/14/2016