The mathematics of music

drawing of  circle with 5ths highlighted

coltrane-circle-new.jpgThere's a lot more to the arts and sciences than meets the eye, especially when the great artists or inventive scientsts combine the two to let us all see something beautiful:

Physicist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander has argued in his many public lectures and his book The Jazz of Physics that Albert Einstein and John Coltrane had quite a lot in common. Alexander in particular draws our attention to the so-called “Coltrane circle,” which resembles what any musician will recognize as the “Circle of Fifths,” but incorporates Coltrane’s own innovations. Coltrane gave the drawing to saxophonist and professor Yusef Lateef in 1967, who included it in his seminal text, Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Where Lateef, as he writes in his autobiography, sees Coltrane’s music as a “spiritual journey” that “embraced the concerns of a rich tradition of autophysiopsychic music,” Alexander sees “the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s” quantum theory.

Neither description seems out of place. Musician and blogger Roel Hollander notes, “Thelonious Monk once said ‘All musicans are subconsciously mathematicians.’ Musicians like John Coltrane though have been very much aware of the mathematics of music and consciously applied it to his works.”

For musicians, music as language elevates communication between the players to a realm that includes the listener. And if Monk said all musicians are mathematicians then we will shall not quibble. Einstein and his theories have had broad influence on a variety of artists, from the novelist Lawrence Durrell to Coltrane and beyond. A fantastical world of connections, elucidations and creative epiphany that anyone can enter and explore. The liberal arts, a broad concept that defines and sustains civilization by increasing our ability to understanding and expand on its highest achievements, is the open ticket to greater meaning in every category of existence. The Franklin College could not be more honored than to be the home of liberal arts education at UGA.

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