Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Math, Music and Reductionism

Were the ancient Greeks indulging in that hoary old myth and saying that music was math, that math was music? No, that's not what they were saying. They were saying that the relationships between different sounds and rhythms were governed by the same basic mathematical ratios that they believed governed the cosmos. The ancient Greeks notwithstanding, it's a rhetorical question I'm asked all the time. "Music's like math, right?!" Wrong. Music's like music, and math is like math!

Here's another question for which I wish I had a tenspot for every time I've been asked: "Johann Sebastian Bach's music is like math, right?!" Wrong. Bach's music is like Bach's music. Now, look, I know what these questioners mean. They hear in Bach's music an order, a logic, a control, a disciplined rightness that they associate with arithmetical sums and algebraic equations. But saying "Bach's music is like arithmetic" is like saying that a human being is nothing but five dollars worth of chemicals, add some water, and stir. This may be true, but it is reductionism at its trivializing worst -- because we are rather more than the sum of our chemical parts. We are also about love and wit, about intelligence and stupidity, about wisdom, imagination, spirit, awareness and about soul. These are the essence of what we are, no matter how unquantifiable these elements might be. Bach's music is not like arithmetic. Bach's music is like Bach.

Here's another one I get all the time: "I've read studies that correlate musical and mathematical abilities. Einstein played the violin, you know." Yes, Einstein played the violin; he played it badly! And if musical and mathematical abilities are indeed one and the same, how then are we supposed to the explain fact that Beethoven, who had a grade school education, was hardly able to do any more than add and subtract small numbers? Multiplication and division -- well, they lay completely outside his ken. Does this make Beethoven a bad musician or simply a dummy? No, he was neither. I would suggest that we do not trivialize music or math by attempting to render them equivalent. They are what they are, but they are not the same.

- Second lecture of Prof. Robert Greenberg's How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Ed., available from The Teaching Company.

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