Setting the Tone: How Physics Can Help Us Understand Musical Harmony (Part 1)

Author: Joseph Iafrate

Editors: Christina Vallianatos, Scott Barolo, and Bryan Moyers

*Editor’s Note: This post has several sound files to help readers understand the author’s message better. These sound files can be accessed via bolded links. 

At my elementary school, entering the fifth grade meant we could finally join the school band, and for most of us, that was a big deal. I had been set on playing the clarinet for ages, so I was ready and raring to immediately dive into “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary had a Little Lamb.”

But before we could do that, we had to learn how to name the building blocks of those songs and the sounds we were making: the musical notes. Our learner books instructed us to orient our fingers in a certain way and call the sound that came out a “G.” Western music labels its tones with the letters A through G. There are also modified notes (sharp and flat) such that we reach twelve total note names.

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