The science of music. 2/4.

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About this work


Radio documentary presented by Professor Robert Winston looking at the evolutionary and developmental roots of music. In this episode he explores the logic, engineering and physics underlying musical sounds. Philip Ball, author of 'The Music Instinct', says we are seeking patterns, instinctively and emotionally, when we listen to music. In listening to Bach, Steven Johnson, musicologist, points out that whilst the listener enjoys the pattern, it is also emotionally expressive. Musical notes have a high mathematical significance and Professor Marcus du Sautoy, University of Oxford, talks about Pythagoras's theories of the mathematical relationship and ratios between notes. Neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, mentions the octave frequency ratio of 2:1 and how neurons fire at 2:1 or 1:2. Robert Winston suggests Pythagorean ratios cannot always be applied to music logically and that our emotional perception often overrides them. To get the proportions we desire we slightly temper our listening (equal temperament). Saxophonist, John Harle, says we have become used to listening to music that is out of tune, with regard to Pythagoras's scale, and that our ear is so trained to equal temperament that properly scaled music now sounds out of key to us. Marcus du Sautoy talks about Bach's piece, 'The Well-Tempered Clavier'. Colin Lawson, director of the Royal College of Music, plays various period instruments like the shalamo to explore the sounds heard a few hundred years ago. The composer, performer and audience also play a part in how we hear sound. John Harle mentions the physics and physiology of performing and how different elements of sound are generated. Marcus du Sautoy suggests composers like mathematical structures in music as a setting to express emotion. Bach's 'Goldberg Variations' and 'The Art of Fugue' are considered due to their mathematical patterns and symmetry. Philip Ball, considers why sounds have emotional power, and says composers create expectations in sound and then manipulate this to provide tension and resolution. At Roehampton University, Adam Ockelford's work with autistic children has made him look at musical patterns and how we automatically or voluntarily hear them. Daniel Levitin looks at Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' and shows how the performance of the notes is important in how we hear them. Schoenboeg's serial music developed in the early twentieth century is considered by Marcus du Sautoy and whether atonal music it makes it harder for the listener to know intuitively what's coming next. Adam Ockelford looks at serial music and cognition with autistic children, in particular Derek Paravicini, who 'corrected the mistakes' in a piece of atonal music by bringing tonality back into it, and wonders if we all do this to a degree. Finally, the programme points out that we divide our musical likes by genre but that science suggests we actually prefer patterns and respond to them instead.


UK : BBC Radio 4, 2013.

Physical description

1 CD (28 min.)

Copyright note

BBC Radio 4.


Broadcast on 21st May, 2013.

Creator/production credits

Produced Martin Williams for BBC Radio 4 ; presented by Robert Winston.



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