Science and music: what’s the connection?

Science and music have a reputation for going hand in hand. But for Crick postdoc and professional musician John J. Williamson, the synergy goes much deeper than their basis in patterns.

Depending on who you ask, music and science are poles apart, or peas in a pod. On the one hand, schools in the UK have traditionally specialised early, channelling students into ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’. On the other, people are often unsurprised to find that I work in both science and music, and might even correctly guess physics. Why?

Einstein and his violin, or Brian Cox and his keyboards, perhaps. Closer at hand, I know of several working musicians in London who have at least flirted with science (Ant Law, Caroline ScottOli Hayhurst, and Tom Green come to mind). For many people, such examples point to some underlying, mysterious connection between the two fields.

I’m not going to say that doing science makes you better at music or vice versa, because it isn’t true. But there is something to be learned by comparing them. Yes, both disciplines are full of patterns but, for me, there are also other, more unexpected connections to be made.

Music as maths?

Music theory lets us analyse and use musical patterns. It deals in intervals between notes, the rhythmic order they appear in, and so on. For example, C to G is a ‘perfect fifth’ interval – think of the first two notes of the Star Wars theme. Combining C, E and G gives us the settled, stable harmony of a C major chord. Using music theory, we can steer towards a musical aim, rather than picking notes at random until something sounds good. 

I’m not going to say that doing science makes you better at music or vice versa, because it isn’t true. But there is something to be learned by comparing them.

Some people, especially composers or arrangers, have a massive, organised and explicit knowledge of theory. Others understand it more implicitly, building up over years an internal link between what they hear and what they do on their instrument. Most do a bit of both.

This theory isn’t precisely scientific, but can feel quite mathematical – counting an unusual rhythm, deducing the harmonic role of a certain note in a chord, and so on.

It’s not all about patterns

Perhaps this is why some people think the music-science connection is natural. Scientists tend to be good at analysing patterns and at least comfortable with maths; and music is just patterns and maths, right? Wrong. In fact, to focus on this narrow similarity is to misunderstand not just music, but science too.

It’s easy to point out that music needs emotion, creativity, and intuition – not just an analytical knowledge of its various rules. And applying music theory in practice requires instinct, habit, and luck.

But this is also true in science. No new idea gets off the ground without an initial spark of inspiration. Finding that spark is often the hardest bit. The rest might flow remarkably freely: doing the calculations, collecting the data, like a composer fleshing out the accompaniment for a melody which only came to them, seemingly at random, after days of deadlock.

There’s beauty in both

Perhaps the closest similarity that occurs to me is in the personal experience of actually being a scientist and a musician.

In both, there’s a strange dichotomy. The core of the work – the practise, the preparation, the experiments, the weeks of calculation and pondering – is private. That’s true even in collaborative research, even if you play in bands rather than solo. It can be isolating; it can foster self-doubt. It can feel obsessive, and to an extent maybe it needs to be.

And yet the result of the work – publishing a paper, giving a seminar, playing a gig, releasing an album – is public. Its success is in large part evaluated by its being public. Will the peer-reviewers accept my manuscript? Will people like my new recording? Will I mess up on stage in front of everyone? In both science and music, this public/private duality is stark and can be difficult to deal with. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both fields are turning focused attention to mental health.

And in both there is the shared joy of things coming to fruition, of pieces slotting into place aesthetically. Beautiful music and beautiful science appeal to us because they are beautiful. The really fundamental reasons why human beings pursue them seem just out of reach, yet irresistible.

So yes, perhaps some analytical and pattern-decoding aspects of science and music appeal to similar people. But the connections are far deeper and more complex than that.

John J. Williamson is a postdoc in the Theoretical Physics of Biology Lab and a bassist. Visit his website for more information.

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