World Music Day is the brainchild of American musician Joel Cohen, who first proposed the idea in France in 1976, while working at a French radio station. His idea – an all night festival of free music on summer solstice – won favour with the French Minister of Culture, and the first Fête de la Musique took place in 1982.
Now in its 30th year, the celebration has grown into a huge international celebration of free music. On 21 June, musicians the world over take to the streets and share their art in public spaces, shop-fronts and side-streets to create a beautiful global noise – the only ‘rule’ being that the performances should be free of charge.
If you’re scientifically inclined, of course, a global celebration of music also happens to be a celebration of mathematics. Yes indeed, when you celebrate the beauty and emotion inherent in music, you are also acknowledging the beauty of mathematical theory and logic.
Simply speaking, rhythm, musical notes and chords can all be explained mathematically, defined in terms of numerical patterns, scales and equations. At a deeper level, composers are often drawn (consciously or not) to mathematical structures – Bach made use of mathematical symmetry, Debussy employed fibonacci number sequences, Erik Satie used the golden ratio in several of his compositions, and many more. Complex, atypical rhythmic structures, as employed in the work of modern minimalist composers like John Cage and Steve Reich, has found favour in a modern rock music sub-genre known as math-rock, where musicians employ complex rhythms, odd, asymmetrical time signatures, angular melodies and dissonant chords.
Where there is music, mathematics is never far away. In the words of Igor Stravinsky, “Mathematics swims seductively just below the surface.”
So when you’re out enjoying your free musical fix on World Music Day, you may just get a little jolt of maths in the process – enjoy it!