David Sulzer


On his book Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music

Cover Interview of April 21, 2021

In a nutshell

Music, Math, and Mind is written for musicians and music lovers, and will take them through a journey that uncovers the science of music and sound. Because artists and art lovers rarely have a good familiarity in math beyond multiplication, and even less in physics and biology, the book finds ways to make even difficult concepts in physics completely understandable with only grade school level math. Indeed, by the end of the first chapter, readers can derive their own musical scale. This is not meant to be a typical popular science book of short anecdotes to read in an afternoon at the beach, but a book that readers come back to for a long time, each time understanding more.

The book tackles some basic questions on math, physics, and the nervous system that are not discussed in music theory classes: Which sounds are in-and out-of-tune? Is it true that scales are really never in tune? What are overtones and harmonic sounds? Sound is formed from air waves that move in space and time. What shapes are these sounds, how big, fast, and heavy? How are sound waves different in air, under water or in the earth? Why do voices and instruments sound different from each other? Why do larger instruments play lower pitches? We have only two eardrums and two ears, how can we identify many simultaneous sounds in a band or in conversations (the “cocktail party problem”)? Are there mathematical definitions of noise and consonance? How does the brain understand what it is listening to? How are emotions carried by music? How do other animals hear and make sound differently than us?

If these issues are not taught to musicians and music lovers, it is not from lack of curiosity. Artists have of plenty of that, and this book is for them.