The basis of all music is timing, counting and numbers. Music without numbers is just sound.
Rather than being restrictive and regimented, numbers hold to the key to enormous creative freedom, right there waiting for us to knock. We can all accesss a creative force that wants to flow, and if we find ourselves without its blessing then we are the ones blocking it. Numbers help us to unblock!
We can all recognise that a 4-piece band will not only sound very different to a 5-piece, but it will behave differently, there will be different groups dynamic, a different energy to the performance, the space they create and the sound they deliver. This is a core lesson, that numbers not only have a mathematical quantity, but a numerological quality.
There have been various attempts to delineate these qualities, to associate particular numbers with particular musical notes and phrases. Gurdjieff’s Law of Octaves is an interesting theory, but for me the connection between numbers and music can be found in the presence of structure, pattern, form and rhythm. It is the numbers that create these aspects of music, but not one of these aspects is the music itself.
Music itself is formed by the creation – knowingly or otherwise – of pattern, which then itself combines with the composer and listener to produce magic. To experience this for yourself select a piece of music, ideally over 5 or 6 minutes long. Audio only, no visuals. As you listen try to find a single repetitive element, the one thing you can count. It could be an instrument, sound or voice. Focus on this and count it. When the count changes focus afresh on the new order. At first this might seem like a joyless experience, sucking the life out of the very air around you, but hang in there and go with the count. If you can get yourself into a relaxed and open enough state as you do this then you will soon find that as your mind is increasingly engaged so your body and heart opens up to something else. You will discover a previously hidden section of music, a new interval or bridge or arrangement that you had not previously heard. Or you will hear everything you heard before, but in a new way. Try it, it really works.
For composers and performers, timing is essential, but if everything is run to the micro-second then it becomes soulless. The trick is to engage with the count in order to move beyond the count, to immerse yourself in the pattern of the number in order for something unexpected to present itself. If we get stuck in the count, stuck in the formula, then the only thing to do is to purposely snap ourselves out of it. So as you include numbers in your daily routine or creative process also introduce a seemingly random element. The spiritual among you might consider a deck of Tarot cards, or the I-Ching as perfect tools for introducing novelty. Those of a more sceptical persuasion might instead try Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, specifically designed with this issue in mind and used by creatives the world over.
Finally, no discussion of numbers can ignore Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But take heart sufferers, for OCD is really only an inner recognition of the power of numbers but a powerlessness in the face of them. Numbers are energy, they carry message and meaning. If a number repeats then research its message and its meaning. Once you have nailed what it is trying to tell you then you will not longer be caught in its web. You might begin by finding some music that counts along in your most regular number. Do not fear this, embrace it, in order to transcend it.