The Week in Radio: When music and maths make for a magic formula


Can pop music be reduced to a mathematical equation? I'd prefer to think not. In my wistful moments, while listening to The Smiths' "What Difference Does It Make?", or Eels' "A Daisy Through Concrete", or Laura Veirs' "Galaxies", I'd rather not imagine smart alec songwriters using X's and Y's to send these wondrous sonic shards tearing through my vital organs. I need to know that tears have been shed, that souls have been broken and blood has been spilt to create these songs that can reduce me to weeping, snot-smothered fool in seconds.

So at first I was keen to avoid BBC6 Music's 6 Degrees Of..., a series in which the journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer unpicks the relationship between music and our emotions. To get to the bottom of how music makes us laugh, dance, sob or drunkenly bellow "I Will Survive" into a karaoke machine at two in the morning is surely to kill off its glorious, intangible mystery.

But then in a week where the national conversation revolved around over a crap song from an ancient kiddie flick, I began pining for something more sophisticated. As social media rang out with "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and Radio 1 agonised over precisely how many seconds it would be acceptable to air before they were sent to Headmaster Cameron's office, here was Sawyer deconstructing Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Radiohead. Oh, go on then, I thought.

Sawyer's theme this week was calculation, or, as she put it, "the small shaded bit in the middle of the Venn diagram of pop and maths". She was quick to note how most of us like to think of pop songs, not as a series of sums, but an unholy mess of emotions. Yet, as she talked to assorted musos and knob twiddlers, she became ever more convinced that there is mathematical order amid the chaos. And, I have to admit, it was fascinating.

She talked to Dave Rowntree, the drummer from Blur, who, as a child, would make radios with his dad and listen to Radio Moscow in his garden through a vast homemade transmitter. He remembered listening to a programme about Arthur C Clarke who once said that technology was indistinguishable from magic, which to me sounds like a lovely way to process technological developments that the average brain can't comprehend. However, Rowntree felt the link between music and maths was overstated. "Being able to count up to 16," he said, "is all the mathematical acuity you need." Which is certainly good news for Justin Bieber when he starts writing his own songs.

The electronic artist Mira Calix was keener to emphasise the mathematical elements in her work, even breaking it down in percentages (55 per cent problem solving; 45 per cent "the magic that you can't really explain"), while Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at Oxford University, maintained that music is pretty much all patterns and numbers, which I could, in the face of such unadulterated braininess, just about swallow, even when he had a pop at Kate Bush for missing out crucial numbers in a song about pi. But then he said: "When I listen to I music, I hardly ever listen to the lyrics." At which point, several thousand songwriters downed their pens in despair, and I put sulkily The Smiths back on.

Radio 2's ever-brilliant The People's Songs is about ordinary people's recollections of significant moments in time and this week's moment was 1997, when New Labour swept into power, soundtracked by D:Ream's "Things Can Only Get Better". The optimism and excitement of this era conveyed by contributors was bittersweet, given that 16 years on, for the majority of people things are now much, much worse.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform