Math Class Drops the Mic

A blog about teaching, with an emphasis on math.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Alt-J's School of Athens

This is the first in a series of posts delighting in the variety of intersections between math and music. Often, those intersections will be lyrical, that is, the lyrics of a track will literally include math terminology. And that is the case for this song.

My students often like to share their musical interests with me, as I'm known to have a wide-ranging and contemporary aural palate. They sometimes seek to shock me, or to see if their choices rise to the level of my considered tastes. In fact I'm neither easily shocked nor particularly sophisticated, so music is always a great starting place for a conversation.

Students in my Math Topics class last year brought me this stormy and menacing track from Alt-J. Some of you will recognize the band's name as a keyboard shortcut on a Mac--try it! I love the way the drums drop out frequently and the voice holds you in. Sometimes everything falls away and the song is yours alone for a beat.

There is a bit of evocative geometry woven into the song. Equally compelling is the video, which re-imagines Raphael's famous 16th century fresco in the Vatican. His fresco was entitled The School of Athens and features Plato, Aristotle, and more than one mathematician. The video shows us the School re-imagined with contemporary youth who in their hardened stances seem pre-disposed to vices rather than virtues. And yet, while this vision of the School is hardly a Platonic ideal, there is a suspenseful defiance in the poses they strike. It does remind me of students I've seen standing in the courtyard, asserting selfhood, straining at leashes that are not just physical, waiting for something to happen, wanting to be the something that happens.

That's when Socrates would step into the scene, and ask the question: what are you here for? And maybe the dialogue would begin. The song is about the shape of relationships. The video takes the shape of Raphael's fresco to show us potential energy. Waiting for Socrates.

Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tesselate, Alt-J [official video]

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