Pythagoras was important to both mathematicians and musicians.

Greek, 6th century B.C.E.
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Pythagoras

2:1 = octave 3:2 = fifth 4:3 = fourth

Pythagoras figured out that certain musical intervals are related to each other by simple whole number ratios.

simple, whole number ratios
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music of the spheres “celestial bodies move in proportions equivalent to pure musical intervals”
It was tempting to think that everything in the universe could be summed up neatly. This view persisted for centuries.

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physical ratios
695 mm

Let’s look at physical ratios, such as string length on a cello. A string is measured in mm’s.

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695 = 347.5 2

695 = 231.66 3
1/2 the string & 1/3 the string Those numbers are getting awkward.

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we measure with touch and sound
Luckily, when we play, we don’t use those kinds of measurements, we go by what we hear and feel.

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string (or pipe) length
By playing the note that occurs at 1/2 the string length, we find that Pythagoras was right.

L = one pitch

1 2

L = one octave higher

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“flutes” of different lengths
I made a set of “flutes” from PVC pipe. They don’t sound great, but they illustrate the Pythagorean ratios.

2:1

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flute = 27” long

Aaron’s flute is 27” long, so his piccolo, which plays an octave higher, should be 13.5” long. It isn’t. Can you guess why?

piccolo = 12.5” long

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flute =

cylinder

The t wo instruments aren’t quite the same shape on the inside, which affects their pitch/length ratio.

cone piccolo

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measure of pitch = frequency
vibrations per second
Each pitch has its own frequency, which is the number of times it vibrates per second, named after Heinrich Hertz.

or Hertz

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One example of a tuning fork. If you strike it and look at it closely, you can see that it looks blurry--it’s vibrating very fast.

A440 vibrates 440 times per second

440Hz

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frequency ratios: if X = one pitch 2 X = one octave higher

X

2X

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string (or pipe) length
and

frequency
are

inversely proportional
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2:1 = octave
Pythagoras used these t wo ratios to find all the notes within one octave. He was very clever.

2X frequency

3:2 = fifth
1.5 X frequency

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1. From the starting note of C, he found G, a fifth higher. Then he found a fifth above G, which was D, but it was outside the octave.

2. It’s easy to find an octave lower than D, just divide its frequency in half. From D he went up to A, then up to E, which again had to drop down an octave. Repeat....

a fifth

a fifth

an octave

C D

E

G

A

C

D E

3. Now you’re ready for a math problem.

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math problem: calculator allowed
first note’s frequency X 1.5 = 2nd note (fifth) 2nd note X 1.5 = 3rd note (fifth) 3rd note ÷ 2 = octave lower that frequency X 1.5 = 4th note, etc do this 12 times (“circle of 5ths”)

last is NOT an exact 2:1 ratio to first
hence, all pianos are slightly “out of tune”
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the complicated world of “tuning”
12th root of 2 (1.0594630943593...)
Most pianos are tuned using “frequency X 12th root of 2” (a truly magical number!) to find the next semi-tone, so the octave comes out even. This is called “equal tempered” tuning.

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