October 25, 2005

Prof Harps on Math, Music, Connections

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Visiting Prof. Craig M. Johnson, mathematics, shared several of his number theorems based on his explorations of the connections between music and mathematics in a lecture yesterday.

In his lecture, titled “Number Theory and Groups in Music,” Johnson examined the many different ways that mathematics can transfer to music. Specifically, Johnson gave the audience an alternative way to viewing mathematics.

“I wanted to demonstrate a non-standard way mathematics can be used to explore any type of phenomenon,” Johnson said. “Most students get introduced to practical applications. This is not the typical thing you see in textbooks.”

Not only can Johnson’s theorems aid mathematics students, but they can also help musicians. Johnson stressed the combination of organization and creativity needed to compose music.

“[Music is] a combination between imaginations and structure. Math allows you to examine that structure to a greater degree. An equal component is imagination. Both play a big role,” Johnson said. “I’m a big fan of people who can compose real music.”

Rebecca Harbison, a graduate student of astronomy, found the idea of combining a subject revolving around structure and a subject revolving around imagination to be one of the most stimulating aspects of the lecture.

“It’s funny, because in math and music, you think one is left brain and one is right brain, but it seems like there’s a lot of stuff in music that has math meaning,” she said. “I like the idea of using both halves of your brain to do something.”

While Harbison does not consider herself a musician, she did express an interest in music. Furthermore, as a student who studied mathematics for her undergraduate degree, she is intrigued by the idea of combining the elements of mathematics and music.

Fellow graduate student of astronomy, Phil Muirhead, saw the lecture from a different viewpoint. As a trombone player, he took an approach from the musical theory side, rather than from just mathematics.

“It doesn’t even form a group in a real situation,” Muirhead said, saying that the theory applies to individual notes but does not explain whole compositions as well.

Other students and professors who exhibited a greater interest in music theory rather than mathematics expressed similar concerns as Muirhead. However, Johnson acknowledged these issues.

“There were a couple of music majors here, and these people well-grounded in music have a different perspective,” Johnson said. “It’s just fun. That’s the main thing. Mathematics is a very exciting field. I can’t think of a better grounding for viewing lots of different phenomenon in an organized way.

Archived article by Blair Robin
Sun Contributor