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Music and the Making of Modern Science$
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Peter Pesic

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780262027274

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262027274.001.0001

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Newton and the Mystery of the Major Sixth

Newton and the Mystery of the Major Sixth

Chapter:
(p.121) 8 Newton and the Mystery of the Major Sixth
Source:
Music and the Making of Modern Science
Author(s):

Peter Pesic

Publisher:
The MIT Press
DOI:10.7551/mitpress/9780262027274.003.0009

Though Isaac Newton walked out of the only opera he ever attended, music had a significant place in his work. As an undergraduate, Newton closely studied music in its quadrivial context during the crucial year in which he initially formulated his ideas about gravitation and physics. Much later, he used musical concepts to formulate his description of spectral colors by imposing a musical octave on the spectrum. In his studies of the colors of Newton’s rings, however, he observed that the spectral colors seem to span a major sixth, not an octave. He attempted to understand this in terms of cube roots and squares, reminiscent of Kepler’s Third Law in astronomy. By thus arguing away the troublesome discrepancy between an octave and a sixth, Newton did not allow himself to confront the importance of this discrepancy. This musical error may have kept him from realizing the degree of the relation between the wave theory of sound (which he had pioneered) and its application to light. Throughout the book where various sound examples are referenced, please see http://mitpress.mit.edu/musicandmodernscience (please note that the sound examples should be viewed in Chrome or Safari Web browsers).

Keywords:   Isaac Newton, Theory of music, Spectrum of light, Color theory, Newton’s rings, Kepler’s Third Law, Wave theory of light, Particle theory of light

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