Circle of fourths: maths meets music

Professor Joe Wolfe
Monday, 19 April, 2010
Bob Beale

The UNSW Orchestra's next performance certainly will be one of nice round numbers. It will be its 100th concert in over 20 years and even the music will have a numerical bent: the musicians will play a new work called "A circle of fourths", written by UNSW physicist, Professor Joe Wolfe.

The work is based on an interesting mathematical feature of musical harmony and uses the circle as a melodic and harmonic feature.

Professor Wolfe is an award-winning researcher and teacher who specialises in the acoustics of musical instruments and the human voice. He's something of a Renaissance man, too, being a talented jazz musician and writing orchestral and chamber music.

"The brief for composing a celebratory piece for the UNSW Orchestra's 100th concert was simple: 4 or 5 minutes of fun, using everybody and not to compete too much for rehearsal time," says Professor Wolfe.

"The orchestra's archivist, cellist Eric Sowey, was keen that the piece incorporate the number 100. 100 instruments is slightly too many. 100 bars too few. The key of C, perhaps?

"The Old Hundredth is a chorale, so named because its words are from psalm 100: 'All people that on Earth do dwell'. I took the first five, four or three notes, added syncopation, and used them as seeds to make the three tunes in this piece.

Another idea that I've wanted to use in a short orchestral work is the circle of fourths that gives this piece its name. Quite apart from the historical, physical and philosophical interest in the circle, I was attracted by the melodic and harmonic possibilities of successive fourths. Stacked up over five octaves, the circle is an interesting chord and building it from the bass creates musical tension."

To find out more about the music, see here

The UNSW Orchestra's 100th concert is on 14 May. 


Media contacts:

Professor Joe Wolfe - 02 9385 4954

Faculty of Science media liaison - Bob Beale 0411 705 435