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Musical Actions of Dihedral Groups

Alissa S. Crans, Thomas M. Fiore, and Ramon Satyendra

1. INTRODUCTION. Can you hear an action of a group? Or a centralizer? If knowl-

edge of group structures can influence how we see a crystal, perhaps it can influence

how we hear music as well. In this article we explore how music may be interpreted

in terms of the group structure of the dihedral group of order 24 and its centralizer

by explaining two musical actions.1 The dihedral group of order 24 is the group of

symmetries of a regular 12-gon, that is, of a 12-gon with all sides of the same length

and all angles of the same measure. Algebraically, the dihedral group of order 24 is

the group generated by two elements, s and t, subject to the three relations

s12 = 1, t2 = 1, tst = s-1.

The first musical action of the dihedral group of order 24 we consider arises via

the familiar compositional techniques of transposition and inversion. A transposition

moves a sequence of pitches up or down. When singers decide to sing a song in a

higher register, for example, they do this by transposing the melody. An inversion, on

the other hand, reflects a melody about a fixed axis, just as the face of a clock can be

reflected about the 0-6 axis. Often, musical inversion turns upward melodic motions

into downward melodic motions.2 One can hear both transpositions and inversions in

many fugues, such as Bernstein's "Cool" fugue from West Side Story or in Bach's Art

of Fugue. We will mathematically see that these musical transpositions and inversions

are the symmetries of the regular 12-gon.

The second action of the dihedral group of order 24 that we explore has only come

to the attention of music theorists in the past two decades. Its origins lie in the P,

L, and R operations of the 19th-century music theorist Hugo Riemann. We quickly

define these operations for musical readers now, and we will give a more detailed

mathematical definition in Section 5. The parallel operation P maps a major triad3 to

its parallel minor and vice versa. The leading tone exchange operation L takes a major

triad to the minor triad obtained by lowering only the root note by a semitone. The

operation L raises the fifth note of a minor triad by a semitone. The relative operation

R maps a major triad to its relative minor, and vice versa. For example,

P(C-major) = c-minor,

L(C-major) = e-minor,

R(C-major) = a-minor.

It is through these three operations P, L, and R that the dihedral group of order 24

acts on the set of major and minor triads.

The P, L, and R operations have two beautiful geometric presentations in terms

of graphs that we will explain in Section 5. Musical readers will quickly see that

1The composer Milton Babbitt was one of the first to use group theory to analyze music. See [1].

2A precise, general definition of inversion will be given later.

3A triad is a three-note chord, i.e., a set of three distinct pitch classes. Major and minor triads, also called

consonant triads, are characterized by their interval content and will be described in Section 4.

June-July 2009] MUSICAL ACTIONS OF DIHEDRAL GROUPS 479

the C-major triad shares two common tones with each of the three consonant triads

P(C-major), L(C-major), and R(C-major) displayed above. These common-tone re-

lations are geometrically presented by a toroidal graph with vertices the consonant

triads and with an edge between any two vertices having two tones in common. This

graph is pictured in two different ways in Figures 6 and 7. As we shall see, Beethoven's

Ninth Symphony traces out a path on this torus.4

Another geometric presentation of the P, L, and R operations is the Tonnetz graph

pictured in Figure 5. It has pitch classes as vertices and decomposes the torus into

triangles. The three vertices of any triangle form a consonant triad, and in this way

we can represent a consonant triad by a triangle. Whenever two consonant triads share

two common tones, the corresponding triangles share the edge connecting those two

tones. Since the P, L, and R operations take a consonant triad to another one with two

notes in common, the P, L, and R operations correspond to reflecting a triangle about

one of its edges. The graph in Figures 6 and 7 is related to the Tonnetz in Figure 5:

they are dual graphs.

In summary, we have two ways in which the dihedral group acts on the set of major

and minor triads: (i) through applications of transposition and inversion to the con-

stituent pitch classes of any triad, and (ii) through the operations P, L, and R. Most

interestingly, these two group actions are dual in the precise sense of David Lewin

[17]. In this article we illustrate these group actions and their duality in musical ex-

amples by Pachelbel, Wagner, and Ives.

We will mathematically explain this duality in more detail later, but we give a short

description now. First, we recall that the centralizer of a subgroup H in a group G is

the set of elements of G which commute with all elements of H , namely

CG(H ) = {g G | gh = hg for all h H }.

The centralizer of H is itself a subgroup of G. We also recall that an action of a

group K on a set S can be equivalently described as a homomorphism from K into

the symmetric group5 Sym(S) on the set S. Thus, each of our two group actions of

the dihedral group above gives rise to a homomorphism into the symmetric group on

the set S of major and minor triads. It turns out that each of these homomorphisms is

an embedding, so that we have two distinguished copies, H1 and H2, of the dihedral

group of order 24 in Sym(S). One of these copies is generated by P, L, and R. With

these notions in place, we can now express David Lewin's idea of duality in [17]: the

two group actions are dual in the sense that each of these subgroups H1 and H2 of

Sym(S) is the centralizer of the other!

Practically no musical background is required to enjoy this discussion since we

provide mathematical descriptions of the required musical notions, beginning with the

traditional translation of pitch classes into elements of Z12 via Figure 1. From there we

develop a musical model using group actions and topology. We hope that this article

will resonate with mathematical and musical readers alike.

2. PITCH CLASSES AND INTEGERS MODULO 12. As the ancient Greeks no-

ticed, any two pitches that differ by a whole number of octaves6 sound alike. Thus we

4The interpretation of the Ninth Symphony excerpt as a path on the torus was proposed by Cohn in [6].

5The symmetric group on a set S consists of all bijections from S to S. The group operation is function

composition.

6A pitch y is an octave above a pitch x if the frequency of y is twice that of x.

480 c THE MATHEMATICAL ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA [Monthly 116

identify any two such pitches, and speak of pitch classes arising from this equivalence

relation. Like most modern music theorists, we use equal tempered tuning, so that the

octave is divided into twelve pitch classes as follows.

AA BCC DD E F F GG A

B DE GA

The interval between two consecutive pitch classes is called a half-step or semitone.

The notation means to move up a semitone, while the notation means to move

down a semitone. Note that some pitches have two letter names. This is an instance of

enharmonic equivalence.

Music theorists have found it useful to translate pitch classes to integers modulo 12

taking 0 to be C as in Figure 1. Mod 12 addition and subtraction can be read off of this

clock; for example 2 + 3 = 5 mod 12, 11 + 4 = 3 mod 12, and 1 - 4 = 9 mod 12. We

can also determine the musical interval from one pitch class to another; for example,

the interval from D to G is six semitones. This description of pitch classes in terms

of Z12 can be found in many articles, such as [18] and [20]. This translation from pitch

classes to integers modulo 12 permits us to easily use abstract algebra for modeling

musical events, as we shall see in the next two sections.

C

B 0 C#/D

11 1

A#/B 10 2 D

A 9 3 D#/E

G#/A 8 4 E

G

75

6F

F#/G

Figure 1. The musical clock.

3. TRANSPOSITION AND INVERSION. Throughout the ages, composers have

drawn on the musical tools of transposition and inversion. For example, we may con-

sider a type of musical composition popular in the 18th century that is especially as-

sociated with J. S. Bach: the fugue. Such a composition contains a principal melody

known as the subject; as the fugue progresses, the subject typically will recur in trans-

posed and inverted forms. Mathematically speaking, transposition by an integer n mod

12 is the function

Tn : Z12 //

Z12

Tn(x) := x + n mod 12

June-July 2009] MUSICAL ACTIONS OF DIHEDRAL GROUPS 481

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