Thursday, June 27, 2013

Son of Numbers Nerd

Sorry. I just can’t resist. Yesterday’s posting was my 555th entry since I began this blog and my followers tipped over to 100. And then the TEDx talk went to 4,555. That’s a stellar day for Numbers Nerd! (Thinking about getting a T-shirt made to proclaim my new secret identity— or a tattoo?)

What is it about numbers? I think they tickle that part of our brain that sets us apart from our animal kinfolk, that capacity to perceive and name and measure pattern, the ability to abtract ourselves from the messy, muddy world and enter a pure realm of thought. It was the last part of the brain to develop, tucked away (though not solely) in the left hemisphere far from the line that goes to the heart. It’s safe and dry there and when we understand how things work, predictable and dependable. In short, all the things that life is not.

And so it’s a place to retreat to when emotions feel too muddled, a haven where the arrows of outrage, grief, bitterness, anger, disappointment can’t reach. I think of my recent encounter with the woman who felt that music was too intense for her to listen to or play. Apparently, she’s a brilliant mathematician and perhaps the two are connected for her. Music is too scary to invite in.

And yet what is music but math in sound and motion? What is math but disembodied music? Every aspect of music can be—and is— described mathematically. The carnival of numbers and patterns in rhythm— measured intervals of beat, the 3/4, 4/4/, 6/8, 15/16 groupings of beats in meter, the elongations, divisions and subdivisions of beat in all their half note, quarter note, eighth note and beyond glory, the common denominators of polyrhythm as 2 and 3 meet down the line, the tempo markings on the metronome—it’s all math. Pitch itself is described mathematically (A=440 cycles per second), melodies have a geometric shape and contour. Harmony is advanced mathematics as the V7 chord resolves to the I and then goes on to journey through a veritable playground of simultaneous sounds described at the IImb7  or the Bb13 or the D7#5, those sonic vertical constructions. Timbre is also math-defined, the louds and softs measured in decibels, attack measurable in visible sound envelopes, instrument tone colors determined by ratios of frequencies and overtones. And finally, form is yet another playground of mathematical relationships— the AABA models or the 12-bar blues or the canon with one part chasing another. Math, math, math.

The beauty is that music is the place where math can open the heart. It’s the beckoning door from the closed castle of abstract thought that leads back to the world, takes the chaos and puts it in order (or rather reveals the inherent order in the apparent chaos), writes a love note where V7 falls into the arms of I and they live happily ever after.

And that’s the question here. How to live with the heart open to love? Anything can become a retreat from the hurt or fear of hurt—math, machines, even music. And we need such retreats to survive. But it’s not a good idea to live there. The world beckons us forth, in full knowledge of the pain and suffering that comes from loving too deeply, caring too much, trusting too much. On yet another inviting summer day, I step outside ready to meet it.

But first I want to check how many Facebook friends I have. 

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