Over the years I’ve dabbled with “translating” the digits of fundamental constants (pi, tau, phi, etc.) into musical — and arguably not-so-musical — scales, not only for my own fun and distraction but because it’s a neat way of getting across the fundamental links between maths and music (and physics and music.) As I’m fond of noting in talks and podcasts (and *cough* books), although one should generally never read below the line, this particular comment, posted under that “not-so-musical” video, made me very happy indeed:
I was equally, if not more, delighted when an e-mail popped into my inbox earlier this week from Paul Downing, who had watched the Numberphile video I did with Brady Haran on converting pi to music and did his own far, far superior* version, based on the Lydian mode. I’ll let Paul explain in the following guest post…
*That “pi music” video contains possibly the most painfully inept guitar work (courtesy of yours truly) since CC DeVille last picked up his axe. My sincere apologies. The pi-derived guitar solo in the track below is slightly less teeth-grindingly awful. Alan Stewart‘s version without my guitar noise on top is here.
I was wandering around YouTube one day, looking at videos about maths, a subject that has always intrigued me (although I must confess it can confuse me more often than not.) Let’s just say I enjoy being mystified by difficult to grasp concepts and strange looking symbols. It proves to me there is much to learn in the universe and that inspires me.
I came across Brady’s video where Philip maps a major scale to the digits of Pi and plays the sequence on guitar. Wow, I thought. That is quite something. Pi. A universal constant. A number that pops out of a circle. A number that presumably has existed since the birth of the universe and will presumably exist as long as the universe exists. Leading to a sequence of notes or pitches that, as far as we know, goes on forever. An infinite melody. Now that is quite something. In fact, that’s totally awesome.
As someone who composes a fair amount of music, I was hooked. I started to think about writing a melody using this technique. I had a think about how to approach things. I’ve always liked the Lydian mode. It’s basically a major scale with a raised 4th (think of a C major scale with an F sharp in it). It has a kind of ethereal, mystical sound to it, very open, almost super-major. How many notes should the melody have? Well an infinite number would be ideal. But seeing as I don’t have an infinite amount of time to compose, I settled on Pi to 100 decimal places.
I wrote out the digits and mapped them to C Lydian using the technique Philip had used and grouped them in bunches of 10. I then set about the task of creating a melody that had pleasing aesthetics. This part of the process is hard to describe. I rely on intuition and instinct, listening to the muse in my head, to write music. So, at this point, I went into ‘composing mode’. Improvising and refining until I had something I was pleased with. Making artistic decisions about rhythm, phrasing and bass notes.
This led to the creation of a lead sheet. A basic structure and blueprint that myself and other musicians could work from. Now it was time to arrange and record. I started by creating a fast moving looped synth sequence of the 101 notes and imported it into the main song to run in the background. It acts almost like a background drone, anchoring the piece. Next, some guide drums (which I later removed). Then some arpeggiated chords from the piccolo bass. A moog synth bass. Another piccolo bass playing the melody on the head and soloing during the improvised section. I then asked Mark Allaway to play some alto saxophone on the composition, with splendid results I think. Finally the track was mixed and mastered…
Something that struck me about improvising within ‘Lydian Pi’ is that whatever notes the improviser chooses. Assuming that the digits of Pi go on forever. Then that sequence of notes must exist somewhere along that Pi number line. So as long as you stick to the mode, you literally can’t play a wrong note. It’s in there somewhere. Which is nice to know I think.
Thanks to Philip for introducing me to the ‘fundamental-constant-to-music concept’. I’m finding it a great springboard to musical composition and have created another piece using Pi (currently a demo) and a piece based on Euler’s number ‘e’ titled ‘E by Sum’. I’m now thinking about using Phi and fixating somewhat on Euler’s identity.
Paul Downing 16.07.2019