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Robert Schneider, Mathematical Musician/Musical Mathematician

(This article is based on an interview that was originally conducted for the podcast Relatively Prime)

Robert Schneider is a rock star mathematician. I do not mean that in the metaphorical sense, as when it is applied, with a rather unmathematical lack of precision, to celebrity mathematicians such as Terry Tao, Cedric Villani, or Timothy Gowers. I mean it in the most literal sense: Robert Schneider is a mathematician and Robert Schneider is a rock star.

In the early 90s Robert was one of the founding members of the indie band The Apples in Stereo, as well as the Elephant 6 Recording Collective. The Apples in Stereo have released 7 studio albums, 4 EPs, and a love album, and if I am being candid I will happily admit to being a fan of their music.

Robert is also a mathematician. He received his Bachelors this past May from the University of Kentucky, and recently started pursuing his Ph.D. at Emory University, studying under Ken Ono.

It is when Robert brings together these two pursuits that he really shines. Take his work on a new scale based on logarithms. The idea stuck him during a conversation with a fellow musician about the usual scales and tunings. He started to think about beat frequencies, a frequency that is defined as the absolute difference between two pitches sounded simultaneously, and if there was a tuning that could really play around with these frequencies.

Since he had been studying mathematics that used logarithms, that is where his mind went when he was thinking about how he could create this scale. By the time he was in his car he already had a formula to write down, he just did not know how it would sound. With some help from his brother-in-law he eventually got a keyboard that could play this new logarithmic scale, and as he said, “I remember the first time I pressed the notes, it was so shocking.”

Shocking or not, he really liked the tones that his scale produced, so much so that on the next The Apples in Stereo album, New Magnetic Wonder, the first chord on the whole album is from the logarithmic scale, and it also featured two link tracks composed in the scale. That was not going to be it though, as their most recent album Travellers in Space and Time has a song, C.P.U., based around the scale.

As clearly that was not enough Robert has created, amongst other things, a new micro-tonal scale in which “the sequence of prime numbers creates melodic patterns arising from the algebraic structure of the scale” where there could be “performances lasting millions of years”; the composition for Andrew Granville’s Mathematical Science Investigation: The Anatomy of Integers and Permutations which features pieces written with prime-number time signatures and instruments that only play on multiples of certain integers; and a piece for the Bell Tower at the University of Illinois, housed in the Mathematics building, that is based on the Sieve of Eratosthenes.

You can hear Robert tell the complete story of the logarithmic scale by listening to the new episode of Relatively Prime: The Score.

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