Is there a way to put a sequence of numbers to music? The system that comes immediately to mind is to match a number to a particular pitch. The difference between any two neighboring integers is the same, so it is logical to assume that the same tone interval should correspond to the same difference in integers. After we decide which tone interval corresponds to the difference of 1, we need to find our starting point. That is, we need to choose the pitch that corresponds to the number 1. After that, all numbers can be automatically matched to pitches.

After we know the pitches for our numbers, to make it into music we need to decide on the time interval between the notes. The music should be uniquely defined by the sequence, hence the only logical way would be to have a fixed time interval between two consecutive notes.

We see that there are several parameters here: the starting point, the pitch difference corresponding to 1, and the time interval between notes. The Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences offers the conversion to music for any sequence. It gives you freedom to set the parameters yourself. The sequences do not sound melodic because mathematical sequences will not necessarily follow rules that comply with a nice melody. Moreover, there are no interesting rhythms because the time interval between the notes is always the same.

One day I received an email from a stranger named Michael Blake. He sent me a link to his video on YouTube called “What Pi Sounds Like.” He converted the digits of Pi to music. My stomach hurt while I was listening to his music. My stomach hurts now while I am writing this. He just numbered white keys on the piano from 1 to 9 starting from C. Then he played the digits of Pi. Clearly, Michael is not a mathematician, as he does not seem to know what to do with 0. Luckily for him the first 32 digits of Pi do not contain zero, so Michael played the first several digits over and over. My stomach hurts because he lost the basic math property of digits: the difference between the neighboring digits is the same. In his interpretation the digits that differ by one can have a tone interval of minor or major second in a random order corresponding to his random starting point.

I am not writing this to trash Michael. He is a free man in a free country and can do whatever he wants with the digits of Pi. Oops, I am sorry, he can’t do whatever he wants. Michael’s video was removed from YouTube due to an odd copyright infringement claim by Lars Erickson, who wrote a symphony using the digits of Pi.

Luckily for my readers Michael’s video appears in some other places, for example at the New Scientist channel. As Michael didn’t follow the symmetry of numbers and instead replaced the math rules with some music rules, his interpretation of Pi is one of the most melodic I’ve heard. The more randomly and non-mathematically you interpret digits, the more freedom you have to make a nice piece of music. I will say, however, that Michael’s video is nicely done, and I am glad that musicians are promoting Pi.

Other musicians do other strange things. For example, Steven Rochen composed a violin solo based on the digits of Pi. Unlike Michael, he used the same tone interval for progressing from one number to the next, like a mathematician would do. He started with A representing 1 and each subsequent number corresponded to an increase of half a tone. That is, A# is 2 and so on. Like Michael Blake he didn’t know what to do with 0 and used it for rest. In addition, when he encountered 10, 11, and 12 as part of the decimal expansion he didn’t use them as two digits, but combined them, and used them for F#, G, G# respectively. To him this was the way to cover all possible notes within one octave, but for me, it unfortunately caused another twinge in my stomach.Share: