Upstate man claims to "decode music"

Feb 13, 2012

Music usually takes years to master through practice and study. But Andrew Willoughby claims he learned it all overnight – literally.

Now the Rochester resident is trying to help others do the same.

“I saw the entire code of music”

The first thing you’ll wonder about Willoughby is why he’s carrying [see slideshow] a large unwieldy cardboard circle that’s as strikingly colorful and intricate as a Tibetan sand mandala.  There are few places he doesn’t lug it around.

After all, it’s Willoughby’s life’s work to explain to anyone how this prop represents the entirety of possibilities in music.

“One night I had a dream that was unlike any other single dream I’ve had in my entire life, I saw the entire code of music go forward. I saw it all go in reverse. Then I saw it go ‘tick tock tick tock’ and as I was watching each one of the notes, I saw them all land in place,” Willoughby says.

Willoughby says he woke up in a sweat and couldn’t shake what he saw.

Then he thought, “I’ve discovered mathematically how music harmony all works.”

Though Willoughby cannot sight read music and isn’t exactly a virtuoso on the piano, the dream consumed him to the point of obsession.

“This dream probably took me about five minutes to dream. It took me six-and-a-half years to illustrate. It showed me all the different angles and I found 11 mathematical characteristics that each note has. Plus its original do-re-me-fa-so-la-te-do, the step-step-half step-step-step-step-half step,” Willoughby says.

So he tried to find a way to articulate his version of music theory all in one place. His first attempt yielded the cardboard wheel, about the size of small satellite dish, which Willoughby drew by hand with markers.

Next came a flip book that progresses like a short cartoon through the structure of music.

“It took me nine months to draw these 96 pictures,” Willoughby says.

As he flips through the book, about the size of the thick wallet, there are shapes, angles, phases of moon and clocks representing what time of day a note corresponds to. The goal is to relate relationships between musical notes to understandable concepts and formulas (like the circumference of a circle), which Willoughby imagines will inspire musicians to consider their craft in a new way. 

“I skipped math class in high school back in the 1970s. Math thrills me now,” Willoughby says, laughing.

To make sense of Willoughby’s concept, or even use it in a productive way, a person needs to have some grounding in music.

A little imagination wouldn’t hurt either. After all, finding inspiration in how D-sharp relates to naturally occurring phenomena, like the rotation of Earth, is exactly what Willoughby asks his clients to do.

On par with Elvis?

While these tools are impressive and comprehensive, he needed a way to share his vision with others. So he invented the music teaching device he calls the “Chord Teacher.” Basically it’s a plastic sheet that has moving parts and wheels that condenses Willoughby’s knowledge into an easy-to-use tool that people of all ages can use and understand.

Willoughby mostly evangelizes person by person on the sidewalk in Rochester, where he offers free music lessons a few times a week for anyone willing to learn.

He thinks it’s just a matter of time before his theories make him well-known – a sentiment shared with him by one of his students.

“He [told me], ‘Andy by the time you’re really famous, you’ll be dead for 200 years’. So all week long I thought he was probably right,” Willoughby says. “I saw him the following week and said, ‘Well, let’s look at some other people in history, like Archimedes, Pythagoras, Newton, Einstein, Bach, Brahms, Elvis Presley - [they] are a lot more famous now than they were when they were alive’.”