The Beatles… U2… Michael Jackson… Pythagoras… Pythagoras? Sure this name is ever present in high school geometry and trigonometry courses, but it usually does not get mentioned along with the greats of modern music. I am not saying he should necessarily, but Pythagoras deserves much more credit than he receives. Let me tell you why.
According to Fiddletree.com, the legend states that one day as the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, strolled by a blacksmith shop he could not help but notice the different tones of the hammers striking the anvils. The ever inquisitive mathematician requested that the blacksmiths trade hammers with the hypothesis that the different tones were due to the swing of the smiths. However, that was not the case; instead the tones stayed consistent with each hammer.
Going with plan B, Pythagoras determined that the tone associated with each hammer had to do with the weight of the hammer rather than the swing of the smith. After weighing each hammer, Pythagoras determined that they had weights 12, 9, 8, and 6 pounds respectively. That is, compared to the six pound hammer, the other hammers weighed 2/1, 3/2, and 4/3 as much.
Pythagoras then turned his attention to taut strings using the ratios he obtained from the hammers. Surprisingly, the tones created by plucking two strings, one twice as long as the other, had the same effect as striking two hammers, one twice as heavy as the other. Playing around with this concept of ratios, Pythagoras developed a sequence of eight tones increasing in pitch. Today we called this sequence and permutations of this sequence the diatonic scales, and they are most easily depicted by the white keys on the piano (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C).
From these diatonic scales arose the robust 12-tone scale known as the Chromatic scale. Then major and minor chords. Harmonies… Melodies… and before too long, the foundation of modern music had been established. The vast majority of western music is founded upon Pythagoras’ development of the diatonic scales, and chances are that if you are listening to music right now (anything from Bach to the B52′s to Bruno Mars), then you are probably experiencing the fruits of Pythagoras’ labor.