Scales containing every interval

This is a maths/music crossover post, inspired by fidgeting around with diatonic chords containing no thirds. The general lemma is the following (see also the examples below):

Lemma. Let be a positive integer, and a subset containing elements. Then every occurs as a difference between two elements .

Proof. Consider the translate . Since both and have size , they have an element in common. If , then for some , so .

Here are some applications to music theory:

Example 1 (scales containing every chromatic interval). Any scale consisting of at least out of the available chromatic notes contains every interval. Indeed, , so the lemma shows that every difference between two elements of the scale occurs.

The above proof in this case can be rephrased as follows: if we want to construct a minor third (which is semitones) in our scale , we consider the scale and its transpose by a minor third. Because , there must be an overlap somewhere, corresponding to an interval of a minor third in our scale.

In fact, this shows that our scale must contain two minor thirds, since you need at least overlaps to get from down to . For example, the C major scale contains two minor seconds (B to C and E to F), at least two major thirds (C to E and G to B), and two tritones (B to F and F to B).

The closer the original key is to its transpose, the more overlaps there are between them. For example, there are major fifths in C major, since C major and G major overlap at 6 notes. Conversely, if an interval occurs many times in a key , that means that the transposition of by the interval has many notes in common with the old key . (Exercise: make precise the relationship between intervals occurring ‘many times’ and transpositions having ‘many notes in common’.)

We see that this argument is insensitive to enharmonic equivalence: it does not distinguish between a diminished fifth and an augmented fourth. Similarly, a harmonic minor scale contains both a minor third and an augmented second, which this argument does not distinguish.

Remark. We note that the result is sharp: the whole-tone scales and have size , but only contain the even intervals (major second, major third, tritone, minor sixth, and minor seventh).

Example 2 (harmonies containing every diatonic interval). Any cluster of notes in a major or minor scale contains every diatonic interval. Indeed, modelling the scale as integers modulo , we observe that , so the lemma above shows that every diatonic interval occurs at least once.

For example, a seventh chord contains the notes¹ of the key. It contains a second between and , a third between and , a fourth between and , etcetera.

Thus, the largest harmony avoiding all (major or minor) thirds is a triad. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see that such a harmony must be a diatonic transposition of the sus4 (or sus2, which is an inversion) harmony. But these chords may contain a tritone, like the chord B-F-G in C major.

Example 3. If you work with your favourite -tone tuning system, then any scale consisting of at least of those notes contains every chromatic interval available in this tuning.

Number theory is heavy metal

As some of you may be aware, I am a musician as well as a mathematician. I often like to compare my experiences between the two. For example, I found that my approach to the creative process is not dissimilar (in both, I work on the more technical side, with a particular interest in the larger structure), and I face the same problems of excessive perfectionism (never able to finish anything).

This post is about some observations about the material itself, as opposed to my interaction with it.

Universal donor.

A look at the arXiv listing for algebraic geometry shows the breadth of the subject. Ideas from algebraic geometry find their way into many different areas of mathematics; from representation theory and abstract algebra to combinatorics and from number theory to mathematical physics. But when I say algebraic geometry is a universal donor (of ideas, techniques, etc.), I also mean that its applications to other fields far outnumber the applications of other fields to algebraic geometry, and that the field of algebraic geometry is largely self-contained.

Much the same role is played by classical music inside musical composition. Common practise theory is used throughout Western music, whether you’re listening to hip hop, trance, blues, ambient electronic, bluegrass, or hard rock. Conversely, the influence of popular genres music on [contemporary] classical is comparatively little. One could therefore argue that classical music is a universal donor in the field of musical composition.

Universal receptor.

The opposite is the case for number theory. Another vast area, number theory often uses ingenious arguments combining ideas from algebra, combinatorics, analysis, geometry, and many other areas. In practical terms, the amount of material that a number theorist needs to master is immense: whatever solves your particular problem.

So is there any musical genre that plays a similar role? I claim that metal fits the bill. With a vast list of subgenres including thrash metal, black metal, doom metal, progressive metal, death metal, symphonic metal, nu metal, grindcore, hair metal, power metal, and deathcore, metal writing often contains creative combinations of other genres, from classical music to ambient electronic, and from free jazz to hip hop. As Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree said about his rediscovery of metal:

I said to myself, this is where all the interesting musicians are working! Because for a long time I couldn’t find where all these creative musicians were going… You know in the 70’s they had a lot of creative musicians like Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, I was thinking “where are all these people now?” and I found them, they were working in extreme metal.

I sometimes think of metal as a small microcosmos reflecting the full range of Western (and some non-Western) music, tied together by distorted guitars and fast, technical drumming.

In summary, algebraic geometry is classical music, and number theory is heavy metal.