Mathematician Scott Rickard has crunched the numbers to create a “pattern-free” piano sonata, but is it “ugly”?

Beauty is a highly subjective quality, especially when it comes to music. Whereas some listeners cannot abide the slightest dissonance, others revel in the avant-garde, so trying to scientifically achieve musical “ugliness” sounds like a busted premise. That didn’t stop mathematician Scott Rickard from devising what he believes is the “ugliest” piano sonata ever written. So what makes this music so unappealing? Rickard believes the key is the amount of repetition.

Music that uses repetition, or compositional techniques that allow the listener to anticipate its direction, is more likely to be deemed beautiful, or so the theory goes. “The idea that we take a musical idea, we repeat it, we set up the expectation for repetition and then we either realise it or break the repetition,” is at the heart of beautiful music, according to Rickard.

Based on this premise, Rickard set out to create a piece of music that had no repetitions in it of any kind. “It’s not random – random is easy. But repetition-free is extremely difficult,” he explains. Using the same mathematical processes behind underwater sonar technology (which requires a pattern-free collection of tones to work), Rickard was able to construct a piece of music in which no two notes are ever the same. Whether or not this makes it ugly is a matter of opinion – one we’re sure the great pioneers of the 20th century such as Schoenberg, Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen might disagree with. 

Premiered as part of a 2011 TED talk, you can skip ahead to 7:40 in the video below if you want to get straight to Rickard’s “ugly” sonata.

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