The Jazz of Physics

Kingswood Oxford held a collaboration between our Stroud Science and Goodman Banks Symposia on April 28 and 29.  Author and Brown University physics professor Stephon Alexander was on campus both days working with MS and US science classes  On Friday NYC-based jazz saxophonist Alexa Tarantino joined Alexander for an assembly where they presented elements of his book The Jazz of Physics.

Throughout the assembly, Alexander explained how music is related to the universe. While he described some mathematical structures, Tarantino improvised some of the structures he mentioned. Alexander said this was the first time a demonstration of this kind has been done.

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1980s, Alexander was encouraged to be a musician, but he also had a love of science, always asking the “why” behind things. He followed the music of rapper Rakim who advocated supreme mathematics or the knowledge of self. “Rakim rhymed about knowledge,” Alexander said. “He was rhyming about scientific concepts. It made it okay for nerds like me to be nerds.” Alexander was also inspired by Einstein who would play an instrument to free his mind when he was stuck on a scientific problem. Lastly, the works of John Coltrane, who believed in the idea that music could bend the space-time continuum, led Alexander to write his book, The Jazz of Physics. John Coltrane drew the twelve musical notes in a circle and connected them with straight lines, forming a five-pointed star. Inspired by Einstein, Coltrane put physics and geometry at the core of his music.

Alexander explained that Pythagoras created a rudimentary guitar with one string called a monochord and depending on where the fret was placed, the instrument made different notes. By using simple mathematics, Pythagoras was able to describe the basis of almost all musical scales, including the pentatonic, the Western, the chromatic, and the Arabic scales. Pythagoras observed several ratios of sound wave frequencies and the corresponding intervals between them, including 4:3 (known to musicians as the interval of a perfect fourth, or two pitches that are five semitones apart from each other) and 3:2 (a perfect fifth, seven semitones apart. Pythagoras also contended that when the planets were going around they were playing musical tones and harmony which he called the music of the spheres.

From Pythagoras, Alexander discussed the influence of Johannes Kepler whose most famous accomplishment is his three laws of planetary motion which laid the foundation of celestial mechanics. Kepler discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits and at different speeds at different times, according to their distance from the sun. During this time period, scientists or “natural philosophers” had to study music theory so Kepler also plotted out the notes of the planets based on the ratios of Pythagoras which led Kepler to discover his theory. Tarantino took Kepler’s notes of Neptune and played what Neptune sounds like on her saxophone. “Music and science were always united from day one,” Alexander said. “It’s only in modern times that they have been bifurcated.”

Throughout Alexander’s explication, Tarantino played music notes and pieces of music illustrating the concepts. At the end of the assembly, Tarantino played a Charlie Parker number.

Speaking of the delineation between various disciplines, Alexander ended the assembly on this reflection. “These boundaries are man-made,” he said. “My field cosmology was a marriage of two different fields. If you have interests in different things and you’re told that there not supposed to speak to one another, go ahead and try to make that happen. Strive for mastery. It’s usually when you do that you find new pathways to actually break the rules in a way that may revolutionize the field itself.”
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Located in West Hartford, CT just steps from Blue Back Square, Kingswood Oxford is a private school inspiring co-ed day students in grades 6-12 with a college preparatory curriculum. Empowered students become clear confident communicators, resourceful problem-solvers, and ethical leaders. KO: where unlimited potential meets endless opportunities.
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