During my senior year of college, I decided I wanted to expand my musical horizons, so I joined the early music ensemble. I had entered college with a viola scholarship, so I had played in the orchestra throughout my time there as well as doing chamber music and working on solo viola pieces, but I had always enjoyed early music and wanted to try something new. In the ensemble, I played Baroque violin, and a lot of my technique as a modern violist translated well. I held the instrument and bow a little differently, but on the whole, I was able to pick it up quickly. Reading the music was another story.

Many people are exposed to treble and bass clefs in music classes. I was very young when my mom started to teach me how to read music, but I still remember the feeling of accomplishment I had when I mastered the idea that the position of a spot on an array of lines and spaces corresponded to a particular key on a piano or a particular pitch I could sing. The treble clef is based on the G above middle C. The bass clef uses the F below middle C.

A C major scale written across bass (bottom) and treble (top) clefs. The two dots on the bass clef indicate the F below middle C, and the treble clef circles the G above middle C. Credit: Martin Marte-Singer Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Many instruments’ ranges fit comfortably onto either the treble or bass clef, perhaps adjusted by an octave when necessary. Piano music, of course, uses both clefs. But the viola is a little too low to use treble clef all the time and a little too high to use bass clef all the time. When I started to play viola, I learned to read alto clef, which has middle C smack dab in the middle of the staff, and eventually I was the music-reading equivalent of trilingual.

A C major scale written in alto clef, starting on middle C. Credit: Hyacinth Wikimedia

My multilingualism had its limits, though. I could read all three clefs, but if I wanted to play music originally written for cello an octave higher or music originally written for flute or violin an octave lower—tasks that would have been trivial on a piano—I would struggle to read bass clef up an octave or treble clef down an octave, respectively. Tenor clef, which is like alto clef but with the C one line higher, flummoxed me entirely. I wasn’t as fluent as I wanted to be.

Early music ensemble pushed my limits. Music from the Baroque era and before was not always notated using the small number of clefs we tend to use now. I was reading music in French violin clef (ooh-la-la, this one looks like treble clef but has the G on the bottom line instead of the line above the bottom), soprano clef (a C clef like alto and tenor clefs with the C on the bottom line), and other currently unusual clefs. It was overwhelming. I made a lot of mistakes in rehearsal, despite the many note names I had to write in my music.

The same semester I started playing with the early music ensemble, I took an abstract algebra class. Abstract algebra looks at structures of sets of numbers and symmetries. It encourages people to see connections between sometimes very different mathematical objects and transformations and to view the relationships between objects as fundamental to understanding those objects.

At some point in the semester, a switch flipped in my brain, and my early music clef struggles virtually disappeared. At the beginning of a piece, I would look at the clef to get my bearings, and I could see the rest of the notes as representing relationships between one pitch and the next. I read intervals, not pitches. I was not perfect, but I felt like almost overnight I had unlocked a new music-reading level.

I have always felt like my journey into more abstract algebra and my new clef fluency were related, but I have struggled to put that connection into words. I feel like the structural and relational aspects of abstract algebra helped me to see clefs as descriptions of relationships between notes rather than as absolute pitches, but I can’t point to a particular theorem or insight in abstract algebra that would apply explicitly.

Last year, I learned about the Yoneda lemma, an important theorem in the mathematical field of category theory. (According to our My Favorite Theorem guest Emily Riehl, it’s every category theorist’s favorite theorem.) I am no category theorist, but I found Tai-Danae Bradley’s description of the Yoneda lemma helpful, particularly the big idea she shared in this post on the Yoneda perspective. She writes that the punchline of the Yoneda lemma, or at least two of its corollaries, is “mathematical objects are completely determined by their relationships to other objects.”

It has taken me a while to make the connection explicitly, but I think the “Yoneda perspective” describes the mental shift I made in early music ensemble. It’s not the exact notes that matter when you’re reading music written in an unfamiliar clef but the relationships between them. Since having this shift in perspective, it's been easier for me to transpose music into different keys and read treble and bass clefs in whatever octaves I need to.

Some organists and pianists can transpose music seemingly effortlessly to accommodate the needs of their church choirs or musical theater performers, and I think it’s because they’ve already shifted to the Yoneda perspective, even if that’s not how they would describe it. They didn't necessarily get there via advanced mathematics classes, but for me, I think abstract algebra class gave me the kick in the rear I needed not to be tied to any one set of exact pitches but to focus on the relationships between them. I won't claim that studying abstract algebra or category theory will improve your music-reading skills—making music, not studying a math book, is usually the best way to get better at making music—but pondering these connections enriches my experience of both math and music, and I hope it can do the same for you.