September 25, 2015

√2 hates π

And why not?  Although √2  and  π are both irrational real numbers, the former is a lowly algebraic number while the latter is transcendental.  Surely that is enough for √2  to envy and hate its much hyped competitor!

Before you decide that I have completely lost it, let me point out that the above ascription of emotions to numbers is no more imbecilic than ascriptions of emotions to temporally organized pitches (along with durations, timbres, and amplitudes) which constitute a piece of music.  A recent example of this dimwitted psycho-musicology can be found in The Guardian (Sept. 24, 2015) where one Kate Molleson had this to say about the music of the Spanish modernist composer Christobal Halffter (italics mine):
He lived in Spain during the Franco regime and his music burns with the desire for non-violence and human rights.

Why a newspaper that employs competent and perceptive music critics like Tom Service would give space to vacuous babbling of a fucking retard like Ms Molleson is beyond me.  But so long as Ms Molleson continues to receive regular paychecks from The Guardian, I hope she gets to write on other subjects as well.  This way the world may learn that because Isaac Newton was abandoned by his mother at the age of three, his laws of motion burn with the resentment of parental neglect.  Or that because Alan Turing was gay, his mathematical model of computation - the Turing Machine - burns with the desire for handsome young men.


Mulvya said...

above ascription of emotions to numbers is no more imbecilic than ascriptions of emotions to temporally organized pitches

That's a stretch. The former, especially of the non-counting kind, are cognitive abstractions, and fairly recent ones at that in evolutionary timescales. Audio, however, is a fundamental and intimate sensory modality and it shouldn't be surprising that sounds, including their combinations, have emotional valence, unlike specific numbers, which are deeply contemplated upon and frequently used by a small set of technicians in academics or engineering etc.

The fact that the emotional meaning varies across individual, context and culture doesn't affect the basic observation that there is one.

Boom said...


Thank you for your comment. Let me first note that the history of irrational numbers, especially the two I mention, goes as far back as the Pythagorean proof that the square root of 2 (as a geometric magnitude) is irrational, and certainly to the development of the theory of proportion and the method of exhaustion by Eudoxus and Archimedes. So these numbers are not "fairly recent" cognitive abstractions as you say.
Moreover, the Schoenbergian modernist music of Christobal Halffter discussed by the Guardian critic is certainly a far more recent cognitive abstraction then even the fully developed theory of really numbers.

Second, to say that certain combinations of sounds have emotional significance for humans is true but not musicologically interesting because this is a claim about human psychology, not about the combinations of sounds themselves. (E.g., I, for one, see no emotional significance in pentatonic music, but I am sure there are plenty of people in China who do.)
Even if we accept some very general basic emotions as objective features of tonal music (i.e., the emotional contrasts between minor and major keys), it still would make no sense to ascribe to music such specific emotions as "desire for human rights".
And when such highly specific ascriptions are considered in light of the fact that Halffter's music is not even tonal, the idiocy of the Guardian critic becomes truly staggering.

Finally, to admit (as you do) that the emotional significance of a combination of sounds varies across individuals and cultures is to admit that there are no emotional meanings embodied by the combinations sounds themselves. After all, people find their own emotional meanings in all sorts of things. Some become sexually aroused at an upscale shoe boutique. Others find sunsets unbearably sad. And some form lasting friendships with their smoking pipes.

Mulvya said...

a) Fairly recent in *evolutionary* timescales i.e. 2K years. Audio is a basic sense medium and its salience in utilitarian terms ("is there a predator behind those trees?") would date close to whenever the sense of sound emerged. So, the ability of sound to trigger visceral reactions is deeply imprinted. That fact has been co-opted by some (and very many not-so) talented individuals, at least over the past few thousand years, to experiment with sequence of sounds to elicit both acute and deferred emotional reactions.

b) I was only disputing your sentiment which I quoted, and not the inane statement by the Guardian critic.

c) I also wasn't postulating an inherent, fixed or shared emotional referent embodied in a tone or (a)tonal scheme or logic. Only that sounds (and, sequences of) readily elicit emotional reactions. For numbers, that effect seems much more limited viz. those who work with the structure of numbers, and maybe, synaesthetes.