It’s as easy as XYZ: Musical composition gets a math lesson

Published 9:35 am Monday, November 2, 2009

For Americans of a certain generations, it’s the tune they heard every Saturday night as they roller-skated with their sweetheart at the local rink.

But as area high school students learned Friday morning “Over the Waves,” is actually a Mexican song known as “Sobre Las Olas,” written by Juventino Rosas in 1884 for the World’s Fair in New Orleans.

That fact came during a lecture given by the Mexican folk music ensemble, Sones de Mexico, who Thursday and Friday presented a series of concerts and workshops at the Sybene Senior Center and Ohio University Southern to show the depth and breadth of the genre.

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“I like to demystify Mexican music,” Juan Diaz, director of the non-profit, explained. “People see the music as inaccessible because of the language. We like to break that barrier down.”

The ensemble’s last appearance was Friday with a group of area high school students at OU-Southern. Here Diaz and colleague Juan Rivera, on fiddle and guitar, took the well-known Spanish tunes, “Cielito Linda” and “La Bamba,” and dissected them by using algebra.

The goal is to show “how it can be applied to different kinds of composition,” Diaz said. “People will say music is mathematical, but few people can tell you exactly how.”

Diaz took the lyrics of the folk songs and by assigning letter variables to the stanzas turned the music into mathematical equations. The musical director came up with the workshop to meet the curriculum needs of the many schools the ensemble visits.

“Instead of numbers we can use patterns to make compositions,” he told the audience. “This is our arrangement in an algebraic formula. We can express musical patterns in the same way to make a composition.”

Currently, the ensemble is touring Ohio as part of the Ohio Council of Arts IMPACT Tour program; local sponsors were the Ironton Council for the Arts, Ohio University Southern and the Briggs Lawrence County Public Library.