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Published: 29 September 2018

By Andy Ross

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The music of mathematics

Mathematics presents a fascinating link between music and weaving. After all, both weave and music are about creating and putting patterns together in pleasing combinations. 

The language of mathematics describes the ways in which our eyes perceive pattern, but that language can be complex and hard to remember. Indian mathematicians used recitation to pass on information so accurately that there is only one extant text of the oldest piece, and there are no variants! 

It is somewhat difficult to describe how the information was passed on, but, basically , texts were learned and recited in various ways. By comparing the different recitations, variations were excised and true forms of the information could be passed on. If you are interested in reading more you can have a look at the comprehensive Wikipedia entry and go to the section entitled Oral tradition. There is plenty of other information available online and a search on Google will find many links. The rhythm and music of recitation aided the memorisation of the formulas and theories, and by reciting in different ways a truly watertight and secure method of passing on information was created. 

Although the art of mathematics seems to be absolute, cultural understanding played its part in the interpretation too. It was wonderful to read the paragraphs about domestic fire-altars and their construction. The brevity of the final instruction ("After dividing the quadri-lateral in seven, one divides the transverse [cord] in three.In another layer one places the [bricks] North-pointing.") belies the complexity behind the words and the understanding that scholars would have had about those words. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_mathematics#Oral_Tradition.) If you would like to read what I am talking about have a look at the section entitled The Sutra genre in the Wikipedia entry. Don't you just love the idea that a whole range of instructions and ideas can be conveyed in two sentences?

The links between music, weaving and mathematics are indeed deeply intriguing, fascinating and wonderful, aren't they?