MUSIC: tuning, scales, fractions, ratio, harmonics :MATH !

beat spinet 1704A spinet, from1704

Nobody knows when or how humans began to make music, but as soon as they could make things that could be used to play “nice” sounds (call them “notes”) they wanted to make musical instments, objects that could produce a number of different notes. The ocarina was an early one of these, and a strange collection of notes it makes. Eventually it was found that some sequences of notes of increasing pitch sounded “better” than others, and the result was a “scale”. The one I am considering here is the well known eight note scale, which runs from a start note to a finish note one octave higher. Found on a piano as the “white” notes, they are C D E F G A B and C’. As usual, it’s one thing knowing what you want, it’s often quite another to find a way of achieving it. In this case it is “string to the rescue”.

A stretched string can be made to vibrate by plucking it. The result is a “nice” sound. This sound will have a “pitch”, which is musical jargon for the frequency of the vibrations, which is physics/engineering jargon for the rate at which the string repeats its vibrations. This rate is expressed in repeats or cycles per second (or other unit of time).
For the record the pitch of the middle C on a piano is 256 (movements of the string up and back down
per second).

Now it was observed millenia ago that if a finger is placed on a string halfway along and the string is then plucked the vibration rate or pitch is doubled, and the sound is described as one octave higher than from the unfingered string. This new note is also known as the first harmonic of the original. The second harmonic is what you get if the finger is placed one third of the way along the string, and its pitch is three times the original. The third harmonic, with pitch four times the original, two octaves up, comes from a quarter of the original string length, and so on …….
Taking the second harmonic, and halving the frequency, or pitch, we get a new note which is between the original and the first harmonic, and either of these played at the same time as the new note gives a “pleasant” sound.
Doing this for the the fourth harmonic (one fifth of the original string length) we get another new note and the original plus the two new notes together produce what is known as the “major chord”.
On the piano, with C the original note, the new notes described above are the G and the E.
Now we can do some math !
If the pitch of C is 256 then the (harmonic) pitch of G is 256 times 3/2. Why? Because the pitch of a harmonic from a plucked string is inversely proportional to the fraction of the string used to make the harmonic.
First harmonic – half the string – pitch 2 times 256 (one octave up)
Second harmonic – one third of the string – pitch 3 times 256 (to get the G)
Third harmonic – one quarter of the string – pitch 4 times 256 (two octaves up)
Fourth harmonic – one fifth of the string – pitch 5 times 256 (to get the E)
and continuing..
Fifth harmonic – one sixth of the string – pitch 6 times 256
Sixth harmonic – one seventh of the string – pitch 5 times 256
The fifth gives a note one octave up from the second, and the sixth gives a note which we call B-flat,
with pitch 256 times 7 divided by 4

The result of all this is that we now have five notes in the scale:
C 256 … E 320 … G 384 … B-flat 448 … C’ 512
but it is easier to see what is going on if we just look at these as proportions of the “home” note C
Then we get
C 1 … E 5/4 … G 3/2 … B-flat 7/4 … C’ 2
or even better
C 4/4 … E 5/4 … G 6/4 … B-flat 7/4 … C’ 8/4

There do seem to be some holes in this, when comparing with the piano.
Where are D, F, A and B ?
We could go up in eighths, which does produce good values for D and B:
C 8/8 … D 9/8 … E 10/8 … G 12/8 … B-flat 14/8 … B 15/8 … C’ 8/4
but F at 11/8 and A at 13/8 don’t look good.
So we look at G, the first of the “new” notes, and think of it as a new home note. Then we can figure out
the B and the D in relation to the G.

The three notes C, E and G form a major triad (the chord of C major), and have the ratios 1, 5/4, 3/2
So to get the ratios of B and D to G just divide all three by the G to C ratio:
(3/2)/(3/2), (15/8)/(3/2) and (9/4)/(3/2) (using 2 times 9/8 as the ratio for D ‘)
and get 1, 5/4 and 3/2, which shows that G B D’ forms a major triad, just like C E G

We still have a problem with F and A, so let us try to set up F A C’ as a major triad by using some simple fraction manipulation.
F to C’ is to be the same ratio interval as C to G, so using the letter F to stand for its ratio to C we want
C’/F = G/C = 3/2
but C’ stands for the ratio of C’ to C, which is 2
So 2/F = 3/2, and solving we get F = 4/3

You can now do the calculations for A, which ends up as A = 5/3, so our full scale, including B-flat, is
C 1 … D 9/8 … E 5/4 … F 4/3 … G 3/2 … A 5/3 … B-flat 7/4 … B 15/8 … C’ 2

Observe that these frequency ratios determine the notes for the scales of C and F, and the scale of G without the F-sharp.
More ratios of interest can be found, as we can see that the intervals CD, DE, FG, GA, AB are whole tones, and EF and BC’ are half or semitones.

Up to the time when Johann Sebastian Bach intruduced the equal tempered scale together with a set of pieces written in each of the possible keys the methods of tuning keyboard instruments (harpsichord, clavichord, spinet) were based on some variant of the harmonic approach.

Here is a link for some heavier stuff:

Next post: The equal tempered scale and some more math.



Filed under fractions, math, music, musical scales, teaching

2 responses to “MUSIC: tuning, scales, fractions, ratio, harmonics :MATH !

  1. Very cool. Intriguing linkage between math and music!

  2. The world runs on frequency. =)

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