Finding the ‘Golden Proportion’ in composition

Posted on November 16, 2010 by Staff Writer

Sweet Briar associate professor of music Nick Ross will perform a “golden proportion” piano recital at 7:30 Wednesday in the College’s Memorial Chapel. The program will focus on the use of the mathematical concept of the golden section in compositions by Mozart, Chopin and Debussy.

Ross, who in addition to a Doctor of Musical Arts has an advanced degree in applied mathematics, has researched and lectured on proportional structures in musical composition. He will be recording a solo CD in December for release next year that includes works performed in the recital.

The golden section, also known as the golden proportion and divine proportion, is a mathematical ratio that occurs frequently in nature — in the markings or physical features of animals and plants which are in a particular proportion to their dimensions. Writers, artists and architects have long tried to replicate the golden section in their works, perhaps because they associate it with representing perfection to the viewer or listener, Ross says.

“I believe that this artists’ perception is a cultural norm,” he said. “I don’t think we consider proportions any less perfect if they aren’t in the golden proportion. However, the fact that artists and composers went to such lengths is fascinating and even amazing, considering the technical difficulties they must have confronted in order to realize these proportions. It is undeniable that the resulting works are often beautiful and beautifully proportioned.”

Scholars debate whether various composers intended to incorporate the golden proportion in their works, but Ross argues that W.A. Mozart, Frederic Chopin and Claude Debussy were deliberate in their use of it. Debussy, he says, “left a few teasing allusions” to it in his letters and published musical criticism, while Mozart and Chopin never mentioned it.

“The proof is therefore not external, but rather intrinsic to the music,” Ross says.

The works include Mozart’s piano sonatas, Chopin’s Etudes, op. 10 and the Nocturne op. 9 no. 2, and Debussy’s Clair de lune, among others.

Ross will perform Wednesday and again at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7 in Memorial Chapel. Both performances are free. For more information, contact him at (434) 381-6121 or