Transcendental Music

Pi tuneWhen I was younger, so much younger than today, I went through a phase of memorising nerdy stuff. I don’t recall why. It was probably something to do with hormones. Anyway, I learned the colours of the rainbow, the order of the planets, the Greek alphabet, etc.

So it was almost inevitable that at some point I decided to embark on the holy grail of mnemonic nerdery – remembering Pi. ALL OF IT!!!

Well, maybe not all of it, but certainly as much as my enthusiastic young brain could manage. It turns out that my brain couldn’t actually manage very much. Remembering abstract things like numbers is surprisingly difficult. I had to memorise the digits in groups of four, and just say them over and over and over. In all, despite much effort over several years, I managed to retain just over forty digits. That’s only about four telephone numbers worth.

Anyway, jump forward to the new century, and I was having a conversation with someone in which I mentioned how I’m naturally good at remembering music – For example I can sit down at a piano and work out how to play some TV theme I’ve not heard since childhood from memory, including chords etc.

But in actual fact, most people are pretty good at remembering music. It’s not unusual for someone to remember an entire song, well enough to sing it, after fewer than ten listens – which is a surprisingly large amount of information. It made me wonder if it would be possible to remember something abstract which we usually find difficult to recall – eg. numbers, by encoding it into a form which we find easier to recall – eg. music.

I fired up my music software and entered notes in a rhythm made up by grouping the notes to match the digits of Pi – so, three quavers, then a gap, then one quaver, then a gap, then four quavers, etc. Thankfully, there are no zeros anywhere in the first thirty decimal places, because that would have made things confusing.

It sounded a bit like a kind of heavy rock riff, so I changed it to electric guitar and added the fifth note of the chord. It sounded quite cool. This might actually work!

So I changed the pitch of a few notes, keeping the rhythm the same, to stop it sounding too repetitive, and added some minor chords on strings. I then came up with a bass-line, also based on the digits of Pi. The bass-line sounded a bit weird playing exactly the same rhythm as the guitar, so I moved it out of sync by four bars, and it sounded great! And so, after adding drums, I had a nice little riff.

So… What to do now. I’ve never really written guitar music before. Maybe a guitar solo? But what to do with that? Maybe I could go full-nerd and write one which encodes the digits of e – the mathematical constant which is the base of the natural logarithm. Is that a bit too nerdy?

It turns out that a guitar solo based on e actually sounds okay!

So now I don’t really know what to do with it. It’s just a snippet of a song really. If I was still in a band I’d probably take it to them and try and make it into a complete song, but I’m not. So I won’t.

More importantly though, is that it definitely helps with the learning of numbers. I can now easily write down the first 11 digits of e without even having tried to learn them, just by playing the tune in my head and counting groups of notes. I assume anyone who didn’t already know the first 12 digits of Pi could do likewise.

I guess I could have written the ‘guitar solo’ using the next however-many digits of Pi after the first 12, rather than e. I’m not sure if people would want to remember e. In fact very few non-nerds probably understand what e is. It might have been better if the tune taught you more digits of Pi instead.

But anyway, now I have a tune which serves no real purpose except to make it easier to learn something I already know. Yay me!

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