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Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit


Algebraic Music

Aug 2, 2013
Originally published on November 27, 2013 5:06 pm

Don't freak out, but this game combines one part name-that-tune, one part doing-math-in-your-head, and a dash of The Proclaimers. It'll be fun, we promise. House musician Jonathan Coulton performs songs that feature a number in their titles, but the numbers have been replaced by algebraic expressions. Contestants must solve for 'x' to make the mathematical expressions in the songs correct.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit



JONATHAN COULTON: This is a song called "Pie". (singing) When ink and pen in hands of men inscribe your form bipedal P they draw an altar on which God has slaughtered all stability. No eyes could ever soak in all the places you anoint and yet to see you all at once you only need the point. Flirting with infinity or geometric progeny that fit inside you oh so tight, triangles that feel so right. 3.14159265358979323846264338329750288419716939937510582097494459.



Jonathan Coulton.

ART CHUNG: So Jonathan Coulton is our house music genius but he actually made a mistake in that song. And if you know what it is, email us at

EISENBERG: You know what? If you're the first person to email what he did incorrectly, we're going to give you a prize.

CHUNG: Yeah. They deserve a prize.

EISENBERG: We're going to have Jonathan Coulton come over to your house and eat pie with you.

CHUNG: That'd be great.

EISENBERG: I don't know if he's up for it. I have no idea if he likes pie. I don't know if you like pie, but that's your prize.

CHUNG: I don't know if that's legal.


CHUNG: But he'll do it.

EISENBERG: He'll do it.

CHUNG: He'll totally do it. So we don't do a lot of math games on our show and people ask why. And I think the reason is because numbers aren't that interesting as answers to me. You could say, oh, the answer was four and it's like no, the answer was 300.

EISENBERG: Right. Which is - I can't even imagine what that game is. But our listeners are kind of unique because they want a math game.

CHUNG: Right. They did. And so what we did was we asked our puzzle writers to come up with a music game that combines math with music.

EISENBERG: And as far as I'm concerned, you add Prince to anything and it makes it amazing. Right now let's welcome our next two contestants - Jeanne Garbarino and Diane Firstman.


EISENBERG: We have two very impressive women here, both science buffs. Jeanne, you work in health science?

JEANNE GARBARINO: Yeah. I'm the director of science outreach at the Rockefeller University.


EISENBERG: Diane, you're a data analyst at the New York City Department of Corrections?


EISENBERG: What does that even mean?

FIRSTMAN: We analyze population trends in correctional facilities on Rikers Island and throughout the city.



EISENBERG: This game is called Algebraic Music. Jonathan, this game sounds like it might be formulaic.

COULTON: Hoo-hoo. Yes.



COULTON: It is a game without equal.


COULTON: It's a real plus. In this game, I'm going to play songs that feature a number in the title. The catch is that I'm going to replace that number with an algebraic expression. Jeanne just turned away from the microphone and swore under her breath.


COULTON: To win the point, you'll have to solve for X to make the mathematic expression in the song correct. So we're not looking for the original number; we're looking for the value of X. For — what? Math is fun, everybody.


COULTON: For example, if I said, as Jay-Z does, I've got X times nine problems you would say that X equals 11 because Jay-Z had 99 problems and 11 times nine equals 99.


COULTON: Of course, I will be singing these mathematical expressions because that's sort of my thing. Are you ready or would you like to give up?


COULTON: Here we go.


COULTON: (singing) I got my first real six string, bought it at the Five and Dime. Played it till my fingers bled. It was the summer of X plus five.



FIRSTMAN: X is 64?

COULTON: You got it.


COULTON: "Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams. Sixty-four plus five equals 69.


COULTON: (singing) When I come home, yeah, I know I'm going to be, I'm going to be the man who comes back home to you. If I grow old, well, I know I'm going to be, I'm going to be the man who's growing old with you.

(singing) But I would walk X times 10 miles and I would walk X times 10 more just to be the man who walks 1,000 miles to fall down at your door.


COULTON: Jeanne?

GARBARINO: Five hundred.

COULTON: Oooh, no. I'm sorry.




COULTON: Fifty. X times 10 miles.



GARBARINO: I thought it was 5,000.

EISENBERG: I like that. The guy in your story is walking further. Yeah.



COULTON: He's walking 5,000 miles.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah.

COULTON: It's amazing.

EISENBERG: He's got to work at it.

COULTON: He might not be taking a direct route.




COULTON: (singing) It takes X plus four to make a thing go right. It takes X plus four to make it out of sight. Hit it.



FIRSTMAN: Negative two.

COULTON: That's right. Negative two.


COULTON: That's right. We're working both sides of the number line, people. X plus four - negative two.


COULTON: (singing) The sky was all purple, there were people running everywhere. Trying to run from the destruction. You know I didn't even care. Say, say 2,000 party over, oops, out of time. So tonight I'm going to party like it's X plus 59.


COULTON: Jeanne.


COULTON: 1940. You got it.



COULTON: (singing) We all play the game when we dare, cheat ourselves at solitaire, inventing lovers on the phone, repenting other lives unknown that call and say and dance with me and murmur vague obscenities to ugly girls like me at X plus three.



FIRSTMAN: Fourteen.

COULTON: That's right, 14.


COULTON: All right. This is your last clue.


COULTON: (singing) If I had X times 10 dollars. If I X times 10 dollars. Well, I'd buy a kit car. A nice reliant automobile. If I had X times 10 dollars I'd buy your love.


COULTON: Is that Jeanne?

EISENBERG: I think so. One hundred thousand.

COULTON: That's right, 100,000.


COULTON: John Chaneski, how'd they do?

JOHN CHANESKI: Wow, that was some complicated game. But Diane takes it away.

EISENBERG: Thank you so much, Jeanne. Well done, Diane. We'll see you at the end of the show.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (singing) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12...

EISENBERG: If your idea of playing sports is being a mathlete, then you should be on our show. Or at least come see it. Send us an email at or you can find us on Twitter or Facebook. We'll send you a quiz and see if you are able to leap tall fractions in a single bound. For tickets, go to


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (singing) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.