Today I’m posting a paper Nick wrote for one of his college classes. I’ve read many of his papers and always find myself surprised and fascinated by his insight and the originality of his ideas. Nick is a math science major who has applied to the Astrophysics program at Augsburg College, the topic of this paper is music.
Music is an all pervasive part of culture, and not just our culture or western culture. Music developed independently in every culture, and it all follows the same basic rules. But why is this? How is it possible that we all recognize music, regardless of our opinions or language?
Part of the answer, I feel, harkens back to the Greeks and Pythagoras. It is in this early Greek culture that the human mind’s appreciation of applied mathematics first comes to light. This seems counter-intuitive, since so many of us struggle with complex math and it seems more an abstraction of science than anything real or tangible. But the Greeks understood that math is real and it is tangible and it’s everywhere. But that’s only a partial answer, and without anything else, it’s a pretty lousy one.
I think it goes back further back. All the way back, in fact. Consider that crickets chirp at regular intervals based on the temperature. It is a basic and fundamental rhythm that exists naturally, regardless of our presence. And, when you think about it, the disruption of that rhythm would have been cause for alarm, quite possibly signaling an approaching predator. While that example certainly doesn’t explain all of what we call music, I think it does provide an important jumping off point.
As the Pythagorean’s understood, mathematics is the language of the Universe and music is the voice of mathematics. Therefore, while mathematics may be the seemingly dry and ultimately complex language, it is music that is the voice of the Universe. But, more than that, each piece of music is a different expression in that vocabulary and it’s our human interpretation of that voice which we cannot actually hear. All we as people can do is try to reproduce it and refine it, never to be completed.
Because, just as Calculus boggles our minds with it’s infinite possibilities and complexity, it is that very same complexity that calms us in the voice of music. Perhaps more speculatively and at the risk of sounding clichéd, the whole Universe really does sing. Chaos theory suggests that behind all the apparent disorder, there is an order, a rhythm. We make music because we do not have leaves to rustle in the wind; because we do not babble as we flow over rocks; because we do not crackle as we scorch across the landscape. Humans build and refine tools, and it is with our hands that we create. We grasp the Universe and rend loose what we can use, then with what we build, we attempt to emulate the Universe as it was before we disturbed it.