John R. Pierce ‘The Science of Musical Sound’ [with sound examples by John Chowing, Max Mathews & Jean-Claude Risset]



There were many editions and translations of John Robinson Pierce‘s influential book ‘The Science of Musical Sound’, published by Scientific American Library, 1983, but only the French translation came with a couple of 7-inch vinyl records with sound examples from Bell Laboratories, IRCAM and Stanford University. Through many historical and scientific references, electronics engineer J.R. Pierce [+] (1910-2002)  shows how music is grounded in mathematics, whether we are talking of sound waves, pitch, echo, human hearing, auditorium acoustics, etc.

The cover of The Science of Musical Sound‘s original edition (pictured right) shows a page from Stockhausen’s Zyklus score – as it were, a piece for solo percussionist, not electronics. The book  sums up Pierce’s music theory based on his research on vacuum tubes, psychoacoustic, satellite communication,  computer music and his discovery of the non-octave musical scale, or Bohlen-Pierce scale. Pierce composed several electronic music tracks (Stochatta, 1959, Variations in Timbre and Attack, 1961, Sea Sounds, 1963, Eight-Tone Canon, 1966) demonstrating mathematics’ sonic potential – some were included in the 1962 Bell Labs compilation LP Music from Mathematics, available here.

The two 7-inches collect around 10 short sound examples per side of mathematics applied to sound and music, each introduced by speaker Jean-Claude Risset (in French). Some were recorded by Pierce and Max V. Mathews at IRCAM, Paris in 1979. Some were created by Elizabeth Cohen [+] and John Chowing at Stanford University in 1979. Some were recorded by Jean-Claude Risset using Mathews’ Music V program in Marseille, IRCAM and Bell Labs. A biographical memoir was written by colleagues of Pierce in 2002, among them Dr. Max V. Mathews, and is available as a PDF here. Download link comes with 20 or so pictures from the book.

Records contents:

  • Side 1 (4:26)
    Ondes, battements, consonance
    (Sound Waves and Consonance)
  • Side 2 (6:15)
    Harmonie, accords, puissance, reproduction
    (Harmony, phase shifting and electronic reproduction of real instruments)
  • Side 3 (6:28)
    Synthèse des sons musicaux
    (Musical Sound Synthesis)
  • Side 4 (6:42)
    Paradoxes et illusions
    (Pitch Ambiguities)

Total time 23:41
2×7” with book ‘Le Son Musical’, editions Belin, France, 1984

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11 Responses to “John R. Pierce ‘The Science of Musical Sound’ [with sound examples by John Chowing, Max Mathews & Jean-Claude Risset]”


  1. 1 lericolais rainier March 3, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Tu sais que je l’adore.

  2. 2 continuo March 3, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Oui.

  3. 3 Nick March 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    This is really tremendous!

  4. 4 continuo March 3, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks, Nick.

  5. 5 lightactivity March 4, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Your blog is so great! Thanks for all the fantastic posts.

  6. 6 continuo March 4, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks. I added you to my blogroll.

  7. 7 sorollets September 19, 2010 at 10:03 am

    hi there,

    I´ve been told there is an interesting acoustic discussion in this The Science of Musical Sound in regards the sabine alpha and the random incidence one (I am talking about absorption coefficients).
    I would not mind buying the book but I am really interested in this topic and I want to be sure it contains what I am looking for.
    Would you mind to have a look at the table of contents and see if you find something related with the difference between the sabine alpha and the random incidence one. It should be a graph…

    Thanks in advance!
    Daniel.

  8. 8 continuo September 19, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Yes, chapter number 11 of The Science of Musical Sound on Architectural Acoustics is introduced with several pages on W.C. Sabine’s Boston’s Symphony Hall acoustic design. The chapter is illustrated with several diagrams based on Sabine’s reverberation calculation. As my copy is the French translation, I can’t tell if notions of “sabine alpha and random incidence” are addressed. Hope this helps.

  9. 9 Elaine Walker April 22, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    That was my favorite childhood book (in English, though).

    :)

  10. 10 continuo April 22, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Some kids are more advanced than others, I guess.
    Thanks for your comment.

  11. 11 Moon Under Water October 9, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Great post, thank you. I am becoming more and more fascinated with Pierce in recent times, and am really looking forward to reading this one.


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