Hearing With Our Eyes: The Geometry of Tonal Space

Julian L. Hook
Bridges: Mathematical Connections in Art, Music, and Science (2002)
Pages 123–134


There is no intrinsic reason why musical structures should be represented graphically. Music is, after all, an auditory phenomenon. It consists of vibrations transmitted through the air as sound waves, received by our ears and processed by our brains as acoustic data. Visual aspects of music-the arrangement of musicians on a stage or of notes on a page, the gyrations of the conductor, the shine of the piano-are of secondary importance in our understanding and appreciation of a musical work. Most human beings, however, are visually oriented. We rely on our eyes more than our ears or any of our other sense organs in finding our way around, identifying other people and objects, and learning new information. Because of this dependence on the visual world, most people find abstract concepts easier to grasp if they can somehow be visualized: if some sort of graphical, geometric representation can be devised showing, if only metaphorically, the important elements of the conceptual framework and their relationships with each other. Even if these elements exist in sound and time rather than in light and space, such a representation may help us to get our bearings and to interpret what we hear.