Creativity, math, and 12-tone music

We've featured doodling, fast-talking YouTube mathematician Vi Hart a lot here, but her latest, a 30-minute extended mix, is absolutely remarkable, even by her high standards. For 30 glorious minutes, Ms Hart explores the nature of randomness and pattern, using Stravinsky's 12-tone music as a starting-point and rocketing through constellations, the nature of reality, Borges's library, and more. On the way, she ends up with a good working definition of creativity, and explores the dilemma of structure versus creation. Brava, Ms Hart, you have outdone yourself! Plus, I like your copyright jokes.

Twelve Tones


  1. Wow. I fully expect her to receive a MacArthur Genius Grant, any year now… Imagine having a teacher like her!

    1. Lol. I went to comments to ask whether anyone had nominated her for a MacArthur yet. Not that a gig at Khan Academy is awful, but she certainly deserves recognition as a genius…

      1. ..or a kickstarter to build her an Underground Lair beyond the reach of copyright laws. I sat for 30 minutes with a big, fat grin on my face. Bravo, Ms. V!

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you CORY!!

    And, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you VI HART!!!!

    I know, I know it’s not very creative, but the whole piece left me creativeless, my mind having been wonderfully messed with and educated at the same time. Is that fair?

  3. tl;dl  Twelve tone? Bah, humbug! Terry Riley and Noodle-cum-doodle Glass saved modern music.

  4. It’s a shame she shied away from excerpting the Stravinsky piece, because the Fair Use defense was practically invented for use exactly like this. Wikipedia says, “Examples of fair use include commentary… criticism … research teaching … and scholarship.”

      1. You excerpt 4’33” at your peril:

  5. A tour de force. In some way, it feels like everything that could be created is encompassed within that clip. I hope she inspires each of us with the courage to follow our personal laser bat wherever it takes us.

  6. For what it’s worth, Stravinsky was much more complicated of a person than simply a fascist. He dabbled with a sympathy for Italian fascism, yes, as did many people of his generation and upbringing, but he expressed leftist views at other times in his life, and he had long friendships with lots of leftist figures.  Really a weird choice of piece, too…a minor work from close to the end of his life. For most of his career he was opposed to serialism.

  7. Oh my, this is actually awesome.  Not like a hot dog.  Thank you.

    “Really, creative people are just skilled at navigating an exponential tree of possibilities.  Without a lot of practice you’ll be stuck slowly walking up and down just a small number of branches making artistic decisions based on what is right in front of you.  But with enough experience you know the general structure, you know what would happen if you went a few branches down any path, all at once without having to actually go there.  So you can instantly leap to interesting destinations that you’d never find if you were going step by step and turned back when the going got rough.

    Creativity means fearlessly embracing things that seem odd, even random, knowing that if you keep your brain open you will will eventually find the connections”

  8. I think the whole 12-tone movement is usually just pretentious bullshit, not because of it not being recognizably beautiful, but because of all the “not being bound by the strict rules of western tonality” statements immediately followed by a litany of strict rules of tone rows and not repeating and no home note…  For people who rebel against structure, they sure have a lot of structure.

    And that’s not to mention they’re still happily bound by the 12-tone scale which is imposed on us by instruments based on the very tonality they scorn.  If they truly want to transcend the tyranny of tonality, why not 19-tet, or 31-tet or 53 tones per octave…  Or even eschew equally divided tone structure all together and just refer to every note by its frequency.

    1. I always thought that was was what Schoenberg had intended also. It was musical academia that, once they finally accepted the idea of 12 tone rules (a battle in itself), codified and dogmatised the idea that it HAD to be 12 tone and only 12 tone.
      But you can formulate your own constrictions to push your creations into new areas instead of falling into reliable old shapes. And it doesn’t have to be the number of tones allowed either. Someone I know had a “book of constrictions” with a numbered list and would roll a die each morning and use the number to set the rules for that days creation. It would force him to start the days work in a new unexplored territory. Can be a great unblocker for any creator.

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