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Math + music = new CD for S.L. teacher-musician

Brian Fetzer, a math teacher who turns mathematics into melodies, performs at the Utah State Fair.
Brian Fetzer, a math teacher who turns mathematics into melodies, performs at the Utah State Fair.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

If you happened to stroll past the central gazebo at the Utah State Fair last week, you might have noticed a man in a black cap strumming a guitar and singing, "Three point one four, one five NINE two."

That was Brian Jackson Fetzer, a Salt Lake mathematics instructor and musician, singing his composition "The Pi Song." As any math major will volunteer, that section of the song's lyrics is the first seven digits of the somewhat mysterious number representing the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

Fetzer constructed the song's notes based on math. Using the C Major scale, he used the third tone for the three, the first to represent one, the fourth for the number four, and so on.

"It makes a very interesting melody," he said Sunday in a telephone interview.

Of course, those seven digits are not the end of pi. The ratio has no end. An Internet site (www.angio.net/pi/piquery) allows you to search for any combination of numbers in pi's first 100 million digits.

As Fetzer points out in his composition, "the numbers, they go on and on."

Fetzer entertained fairgoers every weekday from 10 a.m. until 11 a.m., singing songs from his latest CD, "The Music of Mathematics." Besides the pi song, highlights of the disk include children's songs like "One, Two Three — Circles on the Sea" and "Five Big Bullfrogs."

The CD also features a swift number, "Bach for the Twenty-First Century," in which Johann Sebastian's Toccata and Fugue whips out at hurricane speed. It's what Fetzer suspects Bach would have produced if the Baroque master had had access to a modern synthesizer. Crunch the numbers fast enough, and the product is extremely interesting.

Fetzer began drawing connections between math and music as a youngster growing up in Salt Lake City. Taking piano lessons in which finger positions were numbered, he concentrated more on playing the numbers than playing by notes.

While attending Webster Elementary, "I actually painted mathematics as a painting," he said. "I saw mathematics as an art."

Meanwhile, he began writing songs while in high school. He also performed compositions by others. Appreciating the applause after he played in one student assembly, he thought, "Music has power!"

The connection between music and math hit him while an undergraduate at the University of Utah in the middle 1960s. Looking at graphs of the sine and cosine functions, "I thought, these are beautiful lines. Wouldn't this make beautiful music if we could relate the digits of the number line to vibrations and actually play what a sine function sounded like?"

As he developed and modified his ideas, he says, he meticulously worked out songs using math. For example, his composition "Planetary Bells" uses tones that the Pythagoreans associated with certain planets. "I actually started the piece according to the tones, and I added some modern harmonies to them," Fetzer said.

He noted that for decades he has taught math classes, first as a substitute teacher, then as an instructor at the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College.

Teaching a basic algebra class at the U., he realized, "I was dealing with people who absolutely needed what I had to offer."

He was determined to show them how mathematics is interesting and not intimidating; how it can be "a wonderful friend." He wrote songs that showed how entertaining and interesting math is.

Math was liberating to him as a songwriter, too.

"Mathematics, instead of putting a rigid structure that was inhibiting musical creativity, actually opened up musical creativity."

Students from elementary to university level react positively to the songs. For one class of students, he sang his pi song and tested the students a few days later; 95 percent correctly recalled the digits. For students who had not heard the song the average was only 21.42 percent, he said.

He believes the brain makes connections between math and music.

"Mathematics requires you to remember long, detailed patterns correctly. And music is simply long, detailed patterns, to a great extent.

"And so the same ability that allows you to work with mathematics allows you to be a composer."

His latest has yet to hit the music outlets and bookstores where he regularly sells CDs, but Fetzer says it's on the way. To order "The Music of Mathematics," call him at 532-2766.


E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com