Make Musical Motifs With Math and Letters

Happy New Year, dear list!

May you all have a joyous, prosperous, and healthy new year. I’m feeling playful this morning and have a couple of fun musical games for you to enjoy.

  1. Math Motifs
  2. AlphaMusic

Math Motifs is a unique way to create music based on individual numbers. You’ll need to know a little bit of music theory to play. But don’t worry, I’ll guide you through it.

C major scaleTheory First

Write out a major scale one octave ascending in any key and leave a space between the 4th and the 5th notes. Here I’ve written out a C major scale.

C scale with numbersNow write the numbers from 1 to 8 under each note. Like so: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 –      – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8. Add the next note in the scale at the top and write a 9 under it. In my example I’ve added a D on the fourth line. We have created a relationship between each note in the scale and each digit from one to nine.

But what about zero? Glad you asked. Zero: it represents nothing, yet its circular shape looks as if it could contain everything. All and Nothing. Ah, magical! For that reason, let’s assign it to a magical pitch.

Magical Pitch

That space you left in the scale is for the pitch that falls exactly in the middle of the scale. Music theorists call it the Tritone. Blues musicians call it the Blue Note. Mathematicians call it the mid-point. Whatever you call it, it’s special.

For now, add to your scale the pitch that is between notes 4 and 5 and write a zero under it. In the C scale I wrote out, I’ve added F#. I could have also written Gb since that is just a different name for the same sound. Kind of like a homonym – two words that sound alike but have different meanings. …  Alright, maybe not.

C scale with all numbers, including zeroYou should now have a set of pitches with corresponding numbers that looks something like this:

Let’s write some music!

Now that we have our decoder ring, we can make some music from any set of numbers like the date or the time. Here is a random birthdate and time of birth: 6-4-1963, 15:42. Using my set of pitches and corresponding numbers, this date and time sounds like this.

birthdate 6 4 2013
Birthdate and time music

Wow! Kind of like a musical astrology, eh? Try this with your phone number, locker combination, or social security number. What other sets of numbers can you use to create a musical motif?


For AlphaMusic, let’s use a scale of one octave, i.e. C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Write out your scale and underneath it write out the letters of the alphabet in four rows. Here’s my C scale written out with the alphabet below it.

translator for one octave scale

Translate the name MARY into musical notes by finding the letters M-A-R-Y in the alphabet rows and the corresponding pitches.

Mary Ellen Grace set to musicPutting my name to music, I get this musical phrase.

Try different scales on the alphabet like the major or minor pentatonic, or a blues scale. Or extend a scale to the 13th. Each of these different scales shift the pitch-letter relationship.

My name, Mary Ellen Grace, sounds quite different depending upon which translator I use. Here are three different translators and the corresponding musical phrases generated by each. Be sure and listen to each clip.

  1. Using a complete one octave scale

    one octave name
  2. Using a scale only up to the 7th

    Name using scale up to 7th

  3. Using a major pentatonic scale
    Pentatonic scale code
    Name in Pentatonic code Pentatonic scale music

They all sound so different, don’t they? Which one is your favorite? Add your comment below.

Play your name, your dog’s name, a short quote, or, if you’re feeling really ambitious, the Gettysburg Address! Whatever you do, remember to have fun!

I’d love to hear about your adventures with these two games; Math Motifs and AlphaMusic. Please add your comments below. I’m looking forward to hearing your compositions and the different instruments you play them on. My audio clips are of a piano playing the music. However, I played all my melodies on my alto sax.

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  1. Pentatonic is my fave. But it’s always my fave, being a blues and roots kinda guy. 🙂

  2. This is so cool. I love all the ways you continue to blend music into traditionally non-musical reality.

    Check out the photography exhibit of Ernest Bloch. Evidently he took pics in nature that he felt expressed the music of different classical musicians. (His exhibit begins tonight through May 8 at the Oregon Jewish Museum.)

    • Thanks, Kate.

      The Bloch exhibit sounds great. Thanks for the tip.

      Relatedly, are you familiar with Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition? He wrote this suite of music inspired by artwork of his friend, Victor Hartman. The music really captures the “sounds” of the art!

      Music, art, Nature, – they all are One.

  3. Put me down for Pentatonic too! And I like how you paced the notes in these musical sketches. I’d imagine that would take some playfulness and skill to create such pleasing pieces. Thanks Mary Ellen!

    • Thank you, Reed. (hug)

      It seems I may need to finish what I started with this Pentatonic piece. 🙂

  4. Hi, I am creating a tattoo for myself and I want to have my husbands name is Music notes, it seems that you may be able to help me. His name is Charles. Also it would be neat to know my own “Marcia”.
    Thanks for any and all help.

    • Charles and Marcia in music – sounds great! I’ll contact you about this.
      Thanks for stopping by.

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  6. I am not sure where you’re getting your info, but great topic. I need to spend some time learning more about musical games. Thanks for the great info.

    • Hi Javier! Thanks for stopping by and reading. As to where I get my info, I invent it!

  7. hi Mary Ellen, thank heavens for you. haha ;), i too am in the market for a tattoo. but for the name and birth year of my daughter. ive searched high and low for some time now looking for a piece of software or anything to help me. but have found no luck until now. i would be so greatful and appreciative of your time, knowledge and help in combining my daughters name(Danielle) and her birth date (16/02/2012) along with my passion for music. God bless :))))))))

    • Heya Robert!
      Would you like to commission a short piece by me that represents your daughter’s name and birthdate?
      Please contact me by emailing my direct: and let’s discuss your new tattoo!

  8. Hello Mary, apologies if my emails haven’t reached you. I seem to be having abit of bother with them. Thank you so much for getting back so promptly, and yes I would love to commission you to do the translation of my daughters name (Danielle) along with her birth date (16/02/2012). To help with my tattoo. Thank you again, and I look forward to your reply. best regards Robert.

    • Hello Nim!
      Yes, you could play your resulting music on a recorder. You can play your music on any instrument including voice. I hope you enjoy and have fun.
      Mary Ellen

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