How Does Music Work? (and Why Should We Play It?)
Music is something I have studied, thought about, and practiced most of my life and yet only understood little. I thought this might be a fun chance to peek into the science behind music and also think about some of the reasons we study it.
The open A string on a violin, or five notes above middle C on the piano, has a frequency of 440 hertz (abbreviated as “hz”). This means that when you play that note, the air is compressing and decompressing four-hundred and forty times every second, vibrating your eardrum. An octave up, the next A has double that frequency, 880hz, and another octave would be double again, and so on.
Notes that sound good together tend to have a simple mathematical relationship. In “Also Sprach Zarathustra”—familiar to most as the opening of “2001: A Space Odyssey”—the first three notes are B, F-sharp, and another B. If we compare the frequencies of B and F-sharp, we get a ratio of 2:3.
When we hear this, though, we don’t remark to ourselves “I really love when the notes have a ratio of two to three!” We don’t hear the math at all, and some might be upset that I’m even trying to talk about math and music together. My point is this: although we can describe the nuts and bolts of music as basically “math you can hear”, the end result is clearly far more than a quick aural calculation, and the question that has always fascinated me is, “Why on Earth do our brains do this?”
As far as I know, our best guess is that the ability to hear different pitches allows us to decipher emotion and intention in human speech, and as a happy side effect, we also interpret certain combinations of abstract sounds as meaningful.
Whatever the reason, the fact that our brains hear music at all is absolutely wild, and I will probably be amazed by it until the day I die.
To take a brief turn, think about some of the reasons we listen to and study music: to stay mentally sharp, to pad a resume, to woo women/men, to make money, because our parents made us, to express something deeper than language, to motivate, to get attention, to understand ourselves, to connect to others, to reminisce, to gain status, to relax.
Any reason to study music is a good one. That said, some reasons are better than others. The technical challenges of learning an instrument can be diabolically frustrating and monotonous. We can temper those challenges by remembering that we aren’t really here in pursuit of a grade, or a job, or a more impressive resume, although we may get all of those. We’re here to engage with the grand mystery. We’re here, ultimately, to play.