Mathematics and Music - Models and Morals

Meurig Beynon
Bridges London: Mathematics, Music, Art, Architecture, Culture (2006)
Pages 437–444


The intimate association between mathematics and music can be traced to the Greek culture. It is well-represented in the prevailing Western musical culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, where the traditional cycle of fifths provides a mathematical model for classical harmony that originated with the well-tempered, and later the equal-tempered, keyboard. Equal-temperament gives equivalent status to all twelve tonal centres in the chromatic scale, leading to a high degree of symmetry and an underlying group structure. This connection seems to endorse the Pythagorean concept of music as exemplifying an ideal mathematical harmony. This paper examines the relationship between abstract mathematics and music more critically, challenging the idealized view of music as rooted in pure mathematical relations and instead highlighting the significance of music as an association between form and meaning that is negotiated and pragmatic in nature. In passing, it illustrates how the complex and subtle relationship between mathematics and music can be investigated effectively using principles and techniques for interactive computer-based modelling [17] that in themselves may be seen as relating mathematics to the art of computing – a theme that is developed in a companion paper [2].