Updated: Oct 28, 2020
One of my favourite areas of music is where it started with the notes we have played or sung for hundreds to thousands of years. There is a lot of history even maths and physics involved but it explains a lot about how we play and sing. Above all how we interpret and understand the music whether mathematically or emotionally.
In the 6th century BC, Mathematician Pythagoras in Ancient Greece discovered from dividing a string into fractions how to create different pitches. Sound is infinite, but from this Pythagoras pointed out specific notes all from these fractions. Half way gives us the octave. A third of the way gives us fifths, These intervals that we so often see in our music theory exams are really the starting point of how our notes developed. Pure intervals of octaves, fifths and fourths were stacked on top of each other to gain all the other notes we use.
The use of modes came before what we use as major and minor. But each mode was labelled with a specific emotion like surprise, happy or sad. Now we can easily use words like agitato, giocoso or triste and just change how we play any kind of music by the tone or dynamics. These extra notes that came beyond octaves and fifths are the major and minor intervals- 3rd and 6th especially. We now understand these as the difference between major and minor- also the change in mood.
The difference between the Romantic period and Baroque for example is the much wider use or these major and minor intervals in Romantic Period. Even further- the suspensions of using major 2nds, 7ths and 9ths create more tension and intensity. Just by exaggerating these- we can make a more powerful interpretation. Crucial in developing a stronger ‘musicality’ and musical sense.
The main discovery of Pythagoras was the harmonic series- each note we play can be split into more frequencies- so higher pitches. Listening closely to a low C on a piano and you can just hear the octave above, maybe even the G above that. This is more into science- but the distance between these frequencies are how we got our notes in the first place. The first 4 harmonics have the intervals of an Octave, Fifth, Fourth and Major Third- it continues towards infinity.
- Instrument players can create harmonics and play a different sound. - Woodwind players such as flutes and clarinets use harmonics so they can even play 2 notes at the same time.
- String players more then any other instrument can freely change the note of their harmonics. It sounds like a whistling flute-like sound.
One last thing about this fifth and octave- we always use the fifth and original note for the ending of most of our Western music and songs even today.- The dominant and tonic. So Pythagoras influences music even to the present day.
One last interesting note is at the moment- the lowest note in the universe is from a massive black hole- creating a pitch about 57 octaves lower than middle C. It’s a million billion times lower than our hearing range.