Editorial: Is it too late to talk musical physics?


Damn. No idea what to write about. But this is already super late (hopefully Emily won’t fire me) so it seems as good a time as any to let my mind wander and type whatever I’m thinking.

If I’m lucky, this may turn into a transcript of an interesting internal dialogue or monologue about something. 3 a.m. is a wonderful time for creativity.

So, here I sit listening to “Escape Artist” by Zoe Keating, my mind wandering back to eleven hours ago when I walked into the Long & McQuade on King for my violin lesson with the lovely Mildred Rieder.

Ah, here we go, a thought process: music. The physics of sound? Maybe a bit too technical for 3 a.m.

It is interesting to note, though, the relationship between two notes an octave apart: on a piano, the frequency of C5 is double the frequency of C4, and the frequency of C4 is double the frequency of C3.

Question is, why do we perceive the distance from C3 to D3 to be the same as the distance from C4 to D4? Mathematically, the differences in frequency aren’t the same. If we take the frequency of C3 to be F, then the frequency of C4 is 2F (due the relationship described two paragraphs up).

The frequency of C5 is two times the frequency of C4, or 4F. Each octave has 12 half-steps, not necessarily equally distributed along the frequency range of the octave.

However, we can say that the distance from C3 to D3, which is two half-steps, is approximately equal to 2 * (2F – F) / 12, or F / 6.

Similarly, the distance from C4 to D4 is approximately 2 * (4F – 2F) / 12, or F / 3, which is twice the distance from C3 to D3.

So why do we perceive them both as whole steps?

Intriguing stuff.

Also, why is it that certain phrases tend to evoke the same emotions in people, regardless of whether they’ve heard the music before?I’ve heard that music can be interpreted as conversation, with phrases ending in upward intonation being questions and those ending in downward intonation being answers. Add to that the speed, timbre, overall pitch, and which notes are given emphasis, and you’ve basically invented a language.

But the relationship between music and emotion remains a mystery. I don’t think there’s anyone who would feel anger on hearing, say, “Ode to Joy,” unless they were annoyed by it.

Maybe it’s because certain phrases mimic our own speech tendencies when we feel specific emotion?

I know feeling sad makes me slow down (thus, sad music is often  slow) and can increase hopelessness (which could explain why sad music often has deep downward inflections).

But there is also sad music with rich upward inflection; does that reflect states of indecisive or anxious sadness, rather than the certain, hopeless variety?

And if music makes us feel how certain emotions feel, is it possible to write music that makes us feel emotions we’ve never felt before, like inventing a new colour?

I love 3 a.m.

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