What is Music, Really, Anyways?

Do you remember band class? Maybe it was just a flute or recorder, or maybe you were forced to study an instrument for a few years in middle school. Maybe you even picked up a thing or two from these classes, but how about now?


For me, music felt like a lost potential – something that might have been, but never was. What if I understood rhythm? What if I could sing anywhere near on-key? What if music had become part of my life like it is for so many others?


I’ve been swearing for a long time that I’d get serious (again?) about music some day. It seems such a wide and possibly interesting part of the world to know so little about. This was the perfect opportunity for a couple new experiments now in the works, but first I needed to brush up on just how music worked. What I found surprised me.




A New Perspective


I had a brief brush with the violin when I was young, followed by a bout of the oboe for band class in middle school. This was the best education I received in music, though I memorized a number of songs by heart on the guitar without understanding too well exactly what I was doing.


A couple major things have changed since then. First, I have spent these last 10 years as a computer programmer. Second, I have learned a some foreign languages to varying degrees of proficiency. I have heard that music theory is beloved by mathematicians and often described as a “language” of its own. Once I started studying the fundamentals again, I saw exactly how much both are true.


One thing that I only truly realized recently is that music exists objectively in the world (at least, as much as anything can – existentialist philosophy aside). Of course, the vibrations that travel through the air are the medium of music, but what proves the point is the properties of these waves. For example, it is possible for two waves to interact in surprising ways. Two of the same waves overlaid atop of each other will amplify, whereas two “opposite” waves can cancel – which is how noise canceling headphones work.


It all begins to look a lot like math and numbers quite quickly. Its no surprise, really – math and physics share this sort of tight relationship. What is surprising, though, is that music is an emergent property of these interactions. Furthermore, the math starts to remind one of computer programming…




Binary Music?


Ones and zeros. If you’re like most people, you associate the concept of binary numbers (using nothing but these two numbers) with computers. If you know where to look, though, they start to appear in music.


As a result of binary counting (which is ideal for computers), we often see numbers that are powers of 2. A “Kilobyte” (KB) is 1024 bytes (or 2^10). When you consider almost any form of computer specification (disk size, processor speed, RAM size, etc.) the number will generally be a power of two.


Likewise, music uses a power of twos. This simple map from MusicTheory.net does a great job of expressing how the duration of different notes compare:


Durations of Notes



Notice how each note splits in two? A half note is half of a whole note. A quarter note is a half of a half note. And so on.

In this case, we are using power-of-two fractions. 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, and 1/16 follow the same progression, in this way, as computers do. This was one of my first hints, but alarm bells continued to ring when I started to see things like this:

Key Signature Calculation

I was once told by a university professor that computer programmers tended to love music, and now I understand why. Some of the same basic techniques programmers use to describe data (and, thus, the world) like mapping letters to numbers and performing basic arithmetic on those numbers also applies here in music.

Music, Language and Nature



Still need more convincing that music is something innate? Not convinced that it is, really, a language? Check out this simple yet enlightening TED video:


If music is a language, then, it is the language of emotions. This video takes it a bit further, demonstrating for the musical layman (like myself) how notes can tell a story just as effectively as words on a page. His comparison of Chopin to Shakespeare conjured up a time when a high-school English teacher awakened in me the same sense of reverent wonder that such a tale can be so magnificently told.


Truly, the world of music is something which holds a unique and even mystical power. Is it any surprise that it appears in so many rituals around the world? It is as if we can all collectively tap into this medium of expression and understanding that exists… but was not created by human hands.


Oh, yes, the symphonies are composed by humans, but the thing that make these compositions sound good or bad (harmony, tone, rhythm, etc.) are innate properties of nature. Contrast this against any human language in the normal sense – where each word has been created arbitrarily (more or less) to represent something. In this, music seems somehow closer to the true nature of things.




More Efficient Languages


Not to get too existential, of course, but if the “true nature” concept is a fascinating one which appears frequently in mythology, as well. Even modern magic books (think: Harry Potter) have magic systems where speaking an innate language (for lack of a better phrase) is what allows the characters to command the world around them.


These same basic properties could really help us humans in some big ways. If it is possible to “speak to” the brain directly on a lower level, we may have a powerful tool not just for technology but for culture as well. Whenever computers begin to be able to plug directly into our brains (as they are doing more and more), we are doing the same thing: decreasing the layers of translation.


Our brains have to take sensory input and reconstruct the data into a map of the world. Consider: your ability to see in 3D at all (and therefore catch a ball in the air) comes from a complicated system derived from a huge number of light-receptors arranged into a grid. It is a 2D grid of information assembled by your brain into an approximation of what is actually there.


Likewise, language, communication and all human interaction is a process of translating data through mediums. Even when I speak of the most specific thing in the world (say, a green apple which we can both see on the table in front of us), the results are wildly different. You may hate green apples, where I love them. You may have some memories or history with said apple, or one of a thousand other things. As a result, even by referring to such a specific object, the limitations of human communication do not let us understand the same idea.


What if we could get closer to that? Would that not mean that we understood each other better?


If, then, Music is somehow closer to this, it seems to warrant study.


1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Nadine -  August 16, 2012 - 4:56 pm 718

    I  think that music is the universal language of the cosmos, it’s science and art at the same time…I could experiment by myself, being computer engineer and pianist too…I think music in my life has been my catalizer to improve my career as computer engineer, music changes our brain neurons in a amazing way…you can see details (not only in music, in computer programming, designing software, etc) that others can’t see. It’s really amazing.

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