Three gaps, part 2

Previously we saw if you build a musical scale by starting at F and adding notes, each a perfect fifth (702 cents, approximately) above the previous, modulo an octave, you start to see a pattern: Each scale has at most three kinds of intervals between consecutive notes, or what we call gaps. If there are three kinds, then the largest is equal to the sum of the two smaller ones. When you add a note to such a scale, it splits one of the large gaps into one of each of the two other kinds; eventually you split all the large gaps and are left with a scale having only two kinds of gaps.

At least that’s the pattern up through seven notes. Does it continue?

Adding an eighth note, F♯, splits the whole tone between F and G into two semitones — but, contrary to what you might expect, they’re not equal; one is a diatonic semitone and one is a slightly larger chromatic semitone, 104 cents. It’s yellow.So in the eight note scale there are three kinds of gaps again. (And the big one, the whole tone, is the sum of the two others.)

Add notes nine through twelve and you split the remaining whole tones, ending up with a twelve note scale with two kinds of gaps, diatonic and chromatic semitones.

And you can still go on. The thirteenth note splits a chromatic semitone into a diatonic semitone plus a Pythagorean comma (which is very small, about 24 cents, and grey), so we have three kinds of gaps again, with the chromatic semitone being the sum of the diatonic semitone and the Pythagorean comma. (In the diagram I’m running out of room, so I just show the sequence number of each note, not the letter name.)

And if you keep going, when you get to the 17th note it splits the last of the chromatic semitones and you have a scale with two kinds of gaps, diatonic semitones and Pythagorean commas. And so on. You can keep this up for weeks if you want to.

What’s intriguing is that the 5-note scale, called a pentatonic scale, is widely used especially in folk music; the 7-note diatonic scale is the basis of most mainstream Western music; the 12-note chromatic scale (in a slightly different tuning) is what you find on a piano keyboard; and while the 17-note scale has no significant role in western music, the 13th century Islamic music theorist Safi al-Din al-Urmawi developed scales based on division of the octave into 17 notes. Note those are all 2-gap scales. Meanwhile the 3-gap scales with 4, 6, 8, 9, 10…  notes don’t turn up much at all. Hm.

Now, all of this can be generalized. You can use tempered fifths (as opposed to pure), you can use other intervals like major or minor sixths, pure or not; heck, you can use any interval you want to generate scales. For that matter you can use a tempered octave as your circle, or a perfect twelfth or something else. And if you do you always find the same pattern. Every scale has one, two, or three kinds of gap, and if there are three kinds, the largest gap is the sum of the other two.

Yes, that’s what you observe, but is it always true? It is, and that’s the three-gap theorem.

Wikipedia states it as

if one places n points on a circle, at angles of θ, 2θ, 3θ … from the starting point, then there will be at most three distinct distances between pairs of points in adjacent positions around the circle. When there are three distances, the larger of the three always equals the sum of the other two.

An article by Peter Schiu [paywall] gives it as

Let α > 0 be an irrational number and n > 1. For 1 ⩽ m ⩽ n, order the fractional parts of mα to form an increasing sequence (bm):

Then there are at most three distinct values in the set of gaps gm defined by

Moreover, if there are three values, then the largest one is the sum of the other two.

Despite the musical roots going back to Pythagoras and Safi al-Din al-Urmawi, this theorem wasn’t proved until the late 1950s.

Shall we look at a proof? Sure. In the next part.


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