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The World’s Ugliest Music by Scott Rickard (Full Transcript)

Scott Rickard at TEDxMIA

Full Text of The World’s Ugliest Music by mathematician Scott Rickard at TEDxMIA conference.

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So what makes a piece of music beautiful?

Well, most musicologists would argue that repetition is a key aspect of beauty. The idea that we take a melody, a motif, a musical idea, we repeat it, we set up the expectation for repetition, and then we either realize it or we break the repetition. And that’s a key component of beauty.

So if repetition and patterns are key to beauty, then what would the absence of patterns sound like if we wrote a piece of music that had no repetition whatsoever in it? That’s actually an interesting mathematical question. Is it possible to write a piece of music that has no repetition whatsoever? It’s not random. Random is easy.

Repetition-free, it turns out, is extremely difficult and the only reason that we can actually do it is because of a man who was hunting for submarines. It turns out the guy who was trying to develop the world’s perfect sonar ping solved the problem of writing pattern-free music. And that’s what the topic of the talk is today.

So, recall that Sonar — in Sonar, you have a ship that sends out some sound in the water, and it listens for it — an echo. The sound goes down, it echoes back, it goes down, echoes back. The time it takes the sound to come back tells you how far away it is. If it comes at a higher pitch, it’s because the thing is moving toward you. If it comes back at a lower pitch, it’s because it’s moving away from you.

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