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Just Sublime

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

A purple musical note copyright www.istock.com 27348258

The 19th century French philosopher, Diderot said about music: "It's through numbers, rather than the senses, that music's sublimeness can be measured." Professor Elaine Chew of Queen Mary, University of London has taken this idea to heart, integrating music, maths and engineering. She is a computer scientist, mathematician and an accomplished musician. Using her diverse background she is exploring questions like "Can we really measure the sublime?"

Music can provoke the senses, give pleasure, and sometimes move people to tears. Elaine has been exploring what computer models and visualizations can tell us about this amazing phenomenon, using a combination of experiments and musical performance. It's the whys of music she is really interested in - why did the performer or composer choose this over that? Why is this passage surprising? For example, she has investigated aspects of timing in music she calls 'tipping points' - timeless moments of suspended motion in the music - which can be the defining moment of a performance. She has been able to describe how the timing of these moments works, when they can be used and why they have the effect on a performance that they do.

So the next time a piece of music sends shivers down your spine or leaves you in raptures, Elaine may be able to explain why!