Pythagoras and the D.I.Y. Percussionist

“The best thing in the world—other than falling in love and eating chocolate cake—is walking through Home Depot going like this,” composer and instrument maker John Murphree told percussion students, holding a block of wood up to his ear and tapping it with a borrowed mallet.

Murphree had, in fact, stopped at Home Depot on his way to Interlochen and entered the percussion studio bearing gifts: two five-foot long segments of ¾” type L copper pipes and a pipe cutter.

“We’re going to learn to make and tune chimes!” Murphree told the excited students. Instead of turning to the pipes, however, he rounded on an upright piano and, in a moment, removed a wood panel to reveal the strings. For the next few minutes, Murphree explained the physics of the piano string and how to generate harmonics. “It’s just math!” he said brightly.

Turning back to his iPad, Murphree projected an equation up on the wall—an equation that would help the students determine the lengths necessary for each pipe of their six-tone major pentatonic chime set. “Pythagoras is the guy who figured this stuff out,” said Murphree, gesturing to the equation. “We always associate him with geometry class, but we should associate him with music class too!”

Instructor of percussion Keith Aleo was aghast: Aleo and a student had spent hours of their summer building and tuning a pitched percussion instrument through trial and error. “We spent so many hours on this this summer,” he said. “We didn’t know this Pythagoras stuff!”

By now, several percussion students had their TI-83 calculators at the ready, prepared to calculate the pipe lengths. Murphree showed them a shortcut: a website designed to do the calculations for them “They didn’t have this when I first started making chimes,” he said. “I had to do all the math by hand.”

As Murphree cut the second pipe, the door opened, and Cynthia Van Maanen’s composition class entered the studio. Murphree had spent the previous hour working with the composition students and invited them to join the percussion students for the latter half of his second session, which focused on music composition.

Many composers would begin their session with an example of their own work, or a work by a master who inspired them. Murphree chose instead to open his class with the “Baraka,” a Balinese song that translates to “Monkey Chant.” “It’s about two monkey gods duking it out,” Murphree explained. “It’s a battle of good versus evil.”

It’s also an example of the trademark “wall of sound” that Murphree likes to build in his music. The Balinese “Monkey Chant” sounds like an incredible feat of vocalization: articulating full measures of fast sixteenth notes. In reality, the “Monkey Chant” is comprised of six separate parts that work together to create the impression of one continuous line of sixteenth notes.

Murphree divided the combined composition and percussion studios into six groups and had them perform the chant, first vocally, and then by tapping mallets on blocks of wood. After a few false starts, the students mastered the chant.

“Try building one of your own!” Murphree encouraged. “All you have to do is come up with individual ‘grooves’ that build up to full sixteenths.”

Murphree further reinforced the idea by exhibiting one of his own pieces, “Jigsaw.” “Jigsaw” uses an eleven-beat phrase and uses the juxtaposition of phrase and how it relates to meter to generate rhythmic interest. Murphree kept the same basic phrase, but continually changed the meter in creating “Jigsaw.” “I’m basically extending the amount of time that you listen to something,” he explained. “That’s called ‘phrase rhythm.’”

As Murphree described some of the metric combinations he used in “Jigsaw,” the discussion turned back towards math. His father, an engineer, had always told him, “You know, John, music is really just math.”

Judging from the looks of interest and excitement on the students’ faces—even on empty stomachs at 6 p.m.—they might be a little more interested in their math classes now.