From Math to Music: The Seven Bridges of Königsberg

It was a sunny and humid day at the Seven Bridges Plaza at Georgia Tech. Sheet music threatened to flutter off music stands, carried away by strong winds on the eve of hurricane Florence. Orchestral officers threw paper clips to members in their sections during sound checks to hold their music in place. Musicians dressed in formal black hurried to find their seats in the shade. It was a unique kind of concert for the orchestra – instead of a rehearsal hall or center for the arts with a seated audience, today they were performing for a crowd standing on a lawn, or seated on blankets.

On September 13th, the Schools of Music and Mathematics joined forces to highlight one of the most famous math problems in history: the Seven Bridges of Königsberg. The problem: could someone walk through the city while using each bridge exactly once? While it seems a simple concept, Leonhard Euler developed an entire field of mathematics, called graph theory, while wrestling with this problem. The Seven Bridges Plaza, recently finished in a renovation of the Atlantic Drive Promenade, was built in part to breathe new life into this problem.

A bird's eye view of the plaza.

The collaboration was an experimental integration of STEM and Arts. The Georgia Tech Symphony Orchestra premiered a new composition by composer Marshall Coats, in which he expresses the struggle against futility –Euler’s mental state when there was no solution to the original seven bridges problem – which scientists and any human being can relate to. Five dancers, led by guest choreographer Kristel Tedesco, used movements and space to demonstrate dots and connections, the essences of the graph theory that generated from the seven bridges program. Third-year BSMT students in the Project Studio Analysis course taught by Ting also participated in the rehearsal preparation, met with the composer, and learned about music production and composition through guest lectures.

“The composer of this new piece said that the music of the seven bridges reflects the struggle against futility. He used this idea as the inspiration for his work. He believes that everyone can identify with this kind of mental struggle, yet face it with determination,” said Steve French, the Dean of the College of Design, in his remarks just before the performance started.

Ting conducting her students during the performance.

For Chaowen Ting, assistant professor and Director of Orchestral Studies, this was an opportunity to explore and integrate arts and other disciplines, which is part of the mission of the Georgia Tech’s School of Music. Students in the School’s new BS degree in Music Technology use STEM skills from engineering, computing, sciences, and of course, math to transform the ways we create, perform, and share music, so do the many musicians in the performing ensembles here at Georgia Tech. The concert was aimed at the point that how art can inspire science, and science can inspire art. Jason Freeman, Chair of the School of Music, highlighted the importance of these interdisciplinary connections: “The fundamental modes of logical inquiry that have always underpinned both mathematics and music are particularly important to the emerging field of music technology. We are thrilled that the GT Symphony Orchestra has been able to showcase those connections on campus in this exciting new public space.”

Support for the event came from Science in Vivo and Georgia Tech's College of Design, College of Sciences, and Office of the Arts.