Maxx Cho '09 Merges Music and
Mathematics for Award-Winning Results
by Yiwen Looi '09
Maxx Cho '09
The interdisciplinary creativity and intellectual curiosity that characterizes a Swarthmore education was on display once again when Maxx Cho '09 presented his research at the Joint Mathematics Meetings 2009, held in Washington, D.C., in January. The annual meetings, attended by some of the most prestigious names in mathematical research, include an Undergraduate Student Poster Session where the top-rated posters are awarded cash prizes sponsored by various math societies. One of those prizes went to Maxx for his poster entitled "The Algebraic Compatibility of Riemannian Operators' Voice-leading Properties."
Maxx, a mathematics and music double major from Kinnelon, N.J., conducted the research for his project last summer at the University of North Carolina at Asheville while participating in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program there. According to Maxx, the program usually chooses an area of study for its participants; however, fuelled by his personal interest in Mathematical Music Theory, he decided instead to venture into this relatively new field.
At the core of his research, Maxx delves into Neo-Riemannian Music Theory, focusing on the general mathematical properties governing the transformation of musical entities. His education in music theory had taught him two seemingly disparate ways to create harmony: first, transformation in root motion (the movement of entire chords) and second, voice leading (the movement of individual notes). Maxx's project applied mathematical reasoning to these two concepts as a way of unifying and explaining them. Far from removing the magic from music, as some might argue, Maxx says that music in fact contains a lot of hidden mathematics. Furthermore, because mathematics as a discipline concerns itself deeply with the study of patterns, it is in essence the perfect tool with which to analyze and understand music.
In a sense, Swarthmore can be considered a pioneer in the field of Mathematical Music Theory. Maxx was first introduced to it by Visting Assistant Professor of Music Jonathan Kochavi, a mathematical music theorist himself. Citing both Kochavi and Julian Hook from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music as his main academic influences, Maxx speaks warmly of the music department.
"The professors are very open about your personal take on music," he says. "They very much respect different ways of thinking about music and they see the value in studies like mine even if they might not specialize in the mathematics behind it. They really appreciate and encourage a holistic understanding of music, both intrinsically and through other disciplines." Today, Maxx is part of a small but enthusiastic group of students at Swarthmore who are devoting their time to the intricacies of the interplay between mathematics and music.
Besides the poster competition, Maxx has also submitted his research to the Journal of Mathematics and Music, as well as the Mathematics and Computation in Music conference that will be held at Yale University in June. In the meantime, he has notched another achievement for Swarthmore in mathematics, music, and the area in between, which he likes to call "the most interesting and exciting parts of academia."