Mathematics & Music

"There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres." — Pythagoras

Mathematics and Music poster Counting, rhythm, scales, intervals, patterns, symbols, harmonies, time signatures, overtones, tone, pitch. The notations of composers and sounds made by musicians are connected to mathematics. The next time you hear or play classical, rock, folk, religious, ceremonial, jazz, opera, pop, or contemporary types of music, think of what mathematics and music have in common and how mathematics is used to create the music you enjoy.

Explore the connections between mathematics and music in the videos, podcasts, and articles below.


Music + Math: Symmetry. "From Pythagoras' observations of the fundamental mathematical relationship between vibrating strings and harmony to the digitized musical world we enjoy today, The Majesty of Music and Mathematics with the Santa Fe Symphony and the Santa Fe Institute will explore the remarkable interweaving of the languages of music and mathematics." View the entire Santa Fe Institute series, covering the tritone, harmonics, ratios and more.

Geometry in Music; Dmitri Tymoczko. "What could be a better medium to communicate math to the public than the universal language of music? Ever since Pythagoras used numerical terms to express intervals between notes and derived musical tones from geometrical patterns, mathematicians have linked music to numbers." At the SIAM Annual Meeting in 2010, Tymoczko used graphics and sound to connect math to the music of Chopin, Mozart, and Schubert. Video by Adam Bauser, Bauser Media Group.

Combining Math and Music. Eugenia Cheng, a mathematician who also is a concert pianist, describes how a mathematical breakthrough enabled Johann Sebastian Bach to write "The Well-Tempered Clavier" (1722). At the time that the video was recorded, Cheng was a visiting senior lecturer in mathematics at the University of Chicago.

David Kung on "Symphonic Equations: Waves and Tubes." David Kung (St Mary's College of Maryland) presents "Symphonic Equations: Waves and Tubes" -- a miniexcursion into math and music, presented as a MAA Distinguished Lecture at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The Science Behind the Arts: The Maths Behind Music. University of Surrey, England.

More Videos

Turning math into music. Sean Hardesty (Rice University) plays the opening of the Sibelius Violin Concerto and discusses the relationship between mathematics and music.

The world's ugliest music: Scott Rickard at TEDxMIA. Scott Rickard has degrees in mathematics, computer science, and electrical engineering from M.I.T. and MA and PhD degrees in applied and computational mathematics from Princeton University. Rickard says that he is "passionate about mathematics, music and educating the next generation of scientists and mathematicians."

Robert Schneider - Reverie in Prime Time Signatures (August 2013, Banff Centre). Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo/Elephant 6) composed this theme for "MSI (Math Sciences Investigation): Anatomy of Integers and Permutations," a play by mathematician Andrew Granville and screenwriter Jennifer Granville. "As the title indicates, the piece is written in prime-numbered time signatures; which is to say, there is a prime number of beats in each measure. The main theme plays in the time signature 7/4, which indicates 7 beats per measure, with an interlude that passes through the signatures 2/4, 3/4 and 5/4 as well. From the constraints imposed by these rhythmic patterns, melodies emerged naturally as I composed, special to each prime..."

Music and math: The genius of Beethoven – Natalya St. Clair TED Ed. Natalya St. Clair uses the Moonlight Sonata "to illustrate the way Beethoven was able to convey emotion and creativity using the certainty of mathematics."

The Math Behind Music. Ethan Thompson and David Hamilton explain the math behind music in a fun, concise way in this finalist entry in the 2015 Math-O-Vision contest.

Listen Up (Podcasts)

  • Marcus du Sautoy: music and symmetry. Marcus du Sautoy (Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford) talks to a concert audience about the connections between music and mathematics.
  • Putting Music on the Map. Listen to Dmitri Tymoczko (Princeton University) speak about using topology to represent musical chords as points in a space.

A Medley of More Mathematics and Music

If you would like to recommend more websites on mathematics and music please let us know. Email the AMS Public Awareness Office.

Resources available by subscription or purchase

  • Journal of Mathematics and Music: Mathematical and Computational Approaches to Music Theory, Analysis, Composition and Performance
  • Mathematics and Music, by David Wright
  • Many more books that can be found via a search on the web or your preferred online bookstore!

Also see: Society for Mathematics and Computation in Music. The Society was founded in 2006 as an International Forum for researchers and musicians working in the trans-disciplinary field at the intersection of music, mathematics and computation. The website inculdes information about joining and attending meetings, and online newsletters.

To request a copy of thie AMS Mathematics & Music poster email the AMS Public Awareness Office.

American Mathematical Society