Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from your suggestions after last week’s callout. Read more about how our weekly readers recommend series works at the end of the piece.
At its most elementary, mathematics is about how numbers relate to each other – certainly that’s what most of us are first taught. Any of you with children will have marvelled at a young brain’s ability to identify the concept of numbers in life (three more mouthfuls, five more sleeps until Christmas). Addition is how most kids start to learn about the interconnection of numbers, and I Can Add by They Might Be Giants, which starts our list this week, provides a simple lesson on this basic operation … and in Spanish too.
Once we hit senior school we learn that more complex maths is about laws, theories and constants. Not being a natural mathematician, I required my teacher Mr Skinner to bring to life Pythagoras’ theorem. Once I knew how, I would find the hypotenuse for fun. We’ll have more geometry later, but this short, frankly annoying ditty makes it pretty clear how you go about finding the value of the third side of a right-angled triangle – I’m not sure about some of the other stuff Danny Kaye mentions in The Square of the Hypotenuse…
Mr Skinner also taught me about π. The cute little symbol appealed to my teenage self (shallow, I know) … In Kate Bush’s Pi she sings beautifully about the irrational number – reciting it to at least 78 decimal places – and describes a man obsessed. The beauty is in her repetitive chant, which mirrors the infinite nature and perpetual motion symbolised by a perfect circle.
Jonathan Coulton must be the ultimate geek musician. He’s certainly passionate about the work of the mathematician he namechecks in Mandelbrot Set. The basis of this work is a series of complex number sets which do not diverge when iterated, hence creating complex fractal geometric symmetrical shapes … It’s worth checking some of this out more because it is a great reminder of the importance of maths in art.
I could have created a playlist entirely from Van der Graaf Generator tracks or Peter Hammill nominations. Instead I chose just VDGG’s Mathematics, a song about Leonhard Euler’s Identity Equation, which it describes as a thing of mathematical beauty. If I understood the equation, I’m sure I’d appreciate it’s beauty, but unfortunately just looking at the Wikipedia page gives me a headache – nominator BeltwayBandit explained it very succinctly in his justification.
Pythagoras was another who applied mathematics to music. He surmised the ideal of perfect ratios derived from the sound of hammer strikes at a blacksmith’s forge to create different musical notes. DaddyPig described in the comments the problems musicians encountered with this theory and how Bach went some way to solve the conundrum of inconsistent tuning in his Prelude and Fugue No1 in C major.
Linda Perhacs’s Parallelograms is a psychedelic folk track created by her repeating the names of various geometric shapes. I’m pretty sure she’s made some of these up, but if you get past the very odd middle bit it’s quite a sweet tune.
In their song All Ones and Zeros, the Early Years make reference to the binary numerical system. Binary is everywhere, there’s no getting away from it – or, in their words “it can’t be ignored”.
Now to the problems mathematics can cause us. Todd Snider sings the Statistician Blues, amusingly describing the manipulation of numbers and how this can end up screwing with your head. I sympathise. I took a statistics module at university – you can make most data tell you what you want to hear by being clever with the slicing and dicing.
Reminiscent of the message in the theme tune of The Prisoner, New Musik muse the reality that our lives are now governed by numbers and algorithms on Living By Numbers. Choices are made for us based on the numbers relating to our existence – date of birth, postcode, age and income, to name a few. To the authorities who govern us and conglomerates that provide products for us, we are just figures.
Many musicians use the language of maths to describe love and relationships. Little Boots’ pop number Mathematics and the funkier George Clinton track of the same name use the language we all learned at school to good effect. Even if you don’t understand how to compute the operations they mention, you somehow understand what it is they are saying about their love lives.
So now we come to the prime numbered 13th track, to conclude this list, which is as varied as the branches of mathematics itself. I’m an old raver at heart so I have to finish this numerical set with some house music. Fibonacci Sequence by BT recounts the number sequence developed by the mathematician Fibonacci. He was a nature lover and saw simple mathematical beauty all around him. I think we would have got on.
New theme: how to join in
The new theme will be announced at 8pm (GMT) on Thursday 27 April. You then have until 11pm on Monday 1 May to submit nominations.
Here’s a reminder of some of the guidelines for Readers recommend:
- If you have a good theme idea, or if you’d like to volunteer to compile a playlist from readers’ suggestions and write a blog about it, please email email@example.com.
- There is a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are “zedded”, at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of “zedded”, “donds” and other strange words used by RR regulars.