Review of the book "Measured tones: The Interplay of Physics and Music" by Ian Johnston, CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, 3rd Ed., 2009

by Dr. Soubhik Chakraborty
Department of Applied Mathematics
Birla Institute of Technology
Mesra, Ranchi-835215

Most books on the interface between physics and music have a common drawback--they open with an avalanche of physics theory before showing how the same applies to music. Such a traditional approach--although not unscientific--often kills one's interest before the enjoyment can begin.

Johnston breaks the jinx with this successful attempt that presents the physics concepts together with their musical applications. He deserves high praise, even more so given that he is a physicist and not a musician. From personal experience of teaching science (statistics), I know it requires a lot of patience and self-control to tone down one's natural instinct of overemphasizing one's best subject.

This classic also has a historical touch, duly acknowledging contributions of Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Helmholtz, to name a few. The author would do well to include the highly acclaimed contributions of the Indian scientist Sir C.V. Raman (winner of Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930 for his work on the scattering of light and for the discovery of the Raman effect named after him) in the next edition who worked on the acoustics of musical instruments. These include the theory transverse vibration of bowed strings and the harmonic nature of the sound of Indian drums like the tabla and the mridangam. (1)

The book contains nine chapters. All but the first contain an interlude that describes some musical instrument and the last one covers "the sublimest of instruments, the voice." The chapters include, but are not limited to topics such as musical scales and consonance; oscillation theory; equal temperament; harmonic analysis and synthesis; wave theory; air columns; resonance; pitch recognition and discrimination; psycho-acoustics and modern sound engineering. There are seven useful appendices; the ones on musical notation and measurement of pitch intervals deserve a mention.

The grouping of the bibliography into categories, such as "About human aspects of musical acoustics," from which one can pick up the right references, is a plus. However, most of the references are old and only books, no research papers--except some articles published in the Scientific American magazine; Johnston admits this honestly: "I only know about the books that happen to have come my way" and "I haven't listed any research papers, even though some of the matters I raised are still being worked on today."

In the final analysis, this nontechnical book should be of interest not only to music researchers, but also to musicians who are afraid of physics and physicists who are not indifferent to music. A chapter on a theme such as how an artist can best make use of his instrument would be very welcome, in the next edition.

There is a beautiful remark by this author to which I wholeheartedly agree:

"We believe that order exists, and we look for it. In that respect the aims of science and of music are identical--the desire to find harmony. And surely, without that very human desire, science would be a cold and sterile undertaking".


1 Scientific Papers of CV Raman, Ed. S. Ramaseshan, Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore 1988, Vol. 2 (Acoustics). Back to text