Making Mathematical Music

Sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a lushly patterned rug at the Shiva Vishnu Temple of South Florida, Subramanian Ramakrishnan is the picture of a South Indian classical musician in his collared orange jubbah and saronglike white veshti. A double-barreled drum rests on his legs. His fingers fly furiously across each end as he plays the ancient rhythms and beats of the mridangam, the traditional “instrument of the gods,” in a 500-year-old piece about Lord Krishna.

An associate professor of mathematics at the University of Miami, Ramakrishnan was invited to join the mathematics department 30 years ago after completing his Ph.D. at the Indian Statistical Institute in India. Teaching courses that include calculus, abstract mathematics, and probability and statistics, he focuses on motivating his students.

“Once you yourself are excited about what you are doing,” he says, “that excitement is addictive.” He also opens their eyes to a new perspective on math. “They come from high school thinking math involves lots of formulas you have to memorize and learn to apply, and that you have to be very careful not to make even the slightest mistake. Math is far deeper than that. It’s about reasoning, and how you get to the formulas. If students can develop their analytic abilities, they will see how these formulas tie together as just one big idea. It’s a language, and once you’re comfortable enough with the language, you can think through it.”

Ramakrishnan shows students how mathematics is part of everyday life, using examples from sports, weather forecasting, campaign polls, lotto, and, of course, music.

“One of the important dimensions in music, especially South Indian classical music, is rhythm. When I’m performing with vocalists, they sing patterns that have mathematics,” he explains. “They go several cycles then come to the beat; they may not be on the beat constantly.” Good collaborators understand the underlying mathematics and symmetry.

“Mathematics helps me quickly recognize musical patterns and remember them through formulas I associate with them,” notes Ramakrishnan. “It makes it very easy for me to compose new passages and try to make works that will be aesthetic.”

As a ninth grader in India, Ramakrishnan pestered his uncle to teach him to play the mridangam. In turn he has been passing the tradition to others for years, from his home and at the Shiva Vishnu temple. His students come from as far as Melbourne, Tampa, and Jacksonville, and range in age from 6 to 60. Many study with him for ten or more years to develop competency in the instrument. He donates lesson fees to the temple.

In Ramakrishnan’s world, mathematicians don’t always have to sit amid reams of paper to puzzle through calculations. They can work on mathematics while driving a car, taking a walk, or even playing a drum.

Sherri Miles

   Click here to view Professor Ramakrishnan in performance.