Clayton Cameron: What Are The Mathematics of Jazz? Percussionist Clayton Cameron dissects the mathematics of improvisational jazz, demonstrating how numerical patterns make him a better musician.
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What Are The Mathematics of Jazz?

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What Are The Mathematics of Jazz?

What Are The Mathematics of Jazz?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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So we're going to be hearing a lot of these drumbeats throughout the show today. These drumbeats are the work of Clayton Cameron.

CLAYTON CAMERON: I'm a provocateur of rhythm (laughter).

RAZ: Clayton's drummed for a few musicians you might've heard of.

CAMERON: Including Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

RAZ: As well as Sammy Davis Jr., and here with Tony Bennett.


TONY BENNETT: Clayton Cameron.

RAZ: Anyway, we asked Clayton to do some of the music on the show today and to talk about an idea from his TED talk - an idea he calls...

CAMERON: A-rhythm-etic.

RAZ: A-rhythm-etic - basically, it's a way to understand how numbers and rhythm intersect, an idea that had never really occurred to Clayton until he moved next door to a mathematician.

CAMERON: And we were talking. And I'm no mathematician, OK, by any stretch of the imagination. However, he said something to me that I never forgot. He said, you know, those are really some beautiful numbers. And I said...

RAZ: Like, so were you just talking, like, about a beat or a song or something, and he's, like, yeah, those are beautiful numbers?

CAMERON: Absolutely. And I said, wow. I said, if you're at a certain level with math, I guess they could be beautiful numbers. And then, I had a conversation one day with a friend of mine, who's an incredible drummer, musician named Marvin Smitty Smith. You know, I said, Marvin, there's a track you do. I said, there's no way you could be thinking about this music the way I'm thinking about it because you make it seem so simple. And so Marvin said, well, I just think in cycles. And then he didn't have to say another word. I knew exactly what he meant. And so between numbers are beautiful and, you know, I just think in cycles from my friend Marvin, all these things started coming together.

RAZ: So you started noticing, like, these cycles of numbers in the rhythms that you've been playing for years?

CAMERON: Absolutely. Now watch this. I'm going to play something - two different evenly spaced beats. One will be three and one will be two. So we have (hitting drum) one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, one two three. So I'm going to give you a different sound in my left hand. I'm going to play just two beats within the same space of time. So we have (hitting drum) one, two, one, two. It sounds like this together.


CAMERON: Now what happens - watch what happens when I double it.


CAMERON: Now watch this. I'm going to double it again.


RAZ: Whoa.

CAMERON: It's the same ratio. And all I did was double the tempo.

RAZ: Yeah. It's the same pattern.

CAMERON: So when I break down these cycles and groupings of numbers and how they feel - I mean, three has a certain feel - a cycle of three. A cycle of five has a certain feel. A cycle of seven has a certain feel to it.

RAZ: Yeah.

CAMERON: And certain numbers in music emote a certain feeling.

RAZ: Clayton Cameron - he'll be back later in the show with more hidden numbers in music. We're solving for X on the show today, uncovering how numbers shape our lives - more in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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