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Finding harmony in numbers

By Nicole Koster
On March 5, 2013

Associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Zack Browning made a visit to the Pottle Recital Hall last Thursday to educate students on the use of Fibonacci numbers in music. His lecture, titled "Harmony of Numbers," was an examination of numbers in music through the use of the Golden Section.
The lecture started with Browning playing a familiar tune: "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins. The five minute song was an example of how the golden section did not match up to golden ratio of music. The progression of the piece is what inspired him to find the measurements.
"This piece still keeps hanging on," said Browning. "This song was used in an NFL film. They did a special on how many teams use this song to get up before the games. The Hangover used it of course, Xbox games, too. What's odd about this piece is that there are no acoustic drums until way later in the piece, where they should be upfront. So I did some measurements, and I thought maybe the acoustic drums come in at the golden section, but they did not come in at the golden section. So I was disappointed, but not discouraged."
He continued to show examples of the golden section match ups in other popular music from a wide range of genres. He sampled Eminem, James Brown's "Cold Sweat, Part I" and Public Enemy.
On "Cold Sweat, Part I" Browning said, "The song has both dynamic and static symmetry." Symmetry in music is a huge factor in composing music, and in "Cold Sweat, Part I" the static symmetry gives the song a range of tones. However, according to Browning, his calculations of the golden section did not match up, either. This factor does not make or break a song, though.
"What makes or breaks a song is the internal structure of the song," said Browning. "A lot of people argue that the golden section is intuitive because it's close to two thirds of the way in. With the golden section, we can talk about it. If it's in the music, it was meant to be there."
No matter the genre, a composition always has a section which changes the tone from one point to another, even if it is not officially tagged as the golden section. That range is what makes each piece unique.
"One song, 'Jenny on the Block,' by Jennifer Lopez, the golden section was when the guy starts rapping," Browning said. "So a lot of songs kind of have that break down moment where the section got stripped down, and that would be like the golden section."
Music theory instructor Kari Besharse had Browning as her instructor at the University of Illinois, and when she heard he would be in the area, she invited him to come speak to the students.
"I thought it would be great for him to come and speak to the students. I think the students learned a lot and enjoyed it," Besharse said.

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