A Man of Music
Let’s pretend for a minute that we can squeeze all of the professions in the world into two categories: scientists and artists. To believe that we must broaden our interpretation of each; a scientist discovers and develops while an artist creates and inspires. In this regard, a scientist could be the researcher at NASA developing a new rocket propulsion system, or the CPA of the local retail store developing new strategies to save money. The artist could be the journalist thinking up new articles every day, or the kindergarten teacher thinking up and creating new lesson plans every day to inspire their students. See, it works, everyone in the world is now part of two massive groups. I am a musician; I am a writer; I am an artist. There is very little that gives me more joy than the process of creation, of breaking out my saxophone and delivering a cacophony of luscious sounds, wooing an audience, perceived or otherwise, with my flourishes and dances, or stringing phrases together to sing to the world my thoughts and hopes. But is that good enough? Can I be successful as just an artist? And can someone more scientifically inclined thrive as just a scientist?
A little while ago, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a brilliant man. I can’t call him more than an acquaintance, for I met him once and shared nothing more than a 20-minute bus ride with him. Hell I don’t even know if he’s brilliant, but I like to pretend he is. I had boarded one of Cleveland’s public buses and took my seat amongst the jarring amount of filth and less-than-reputable Cleveland citizens. I settled in for an uncomfortable ride home from work, when on walks an eccentric Asian, hair sprouting off his head in whatever direction it felt like, glasses constantly sliding down his nose, and a gigantic, toothy, crazed grin. He sits down next to me, doesn’t say a word, reaches in his backpack, still silent, and pulls out a book entitled “The Physics of Music”. He opens it up to a page about half way into it, clears his throat, and starts reading aloud, “Pitch is a purely psychological construct, related both to the natural frequency of a particular tone and to its relative position in the musical scale” and continues on in this regard for quite some time, mentioning nodes, harmonics, oscillations, resonance patterns, before looking up and seeing my absolutely dumbfounded face, at which point he softly closed the book and stared out the window the rest of the time. We arrived at my stop 20 minutes later and that was the end of that relationship.
Inspiration is a peculiar thing. His words stuck with me for whatever reason. It’s not like I hadn’t taken physics before, it’s not like his words were some new amazing discovery. But for the first time, for whatever reason, it got me really thinking about the physics of music. Maybe it was the stifling heat of the bus, or my intent concentration on not staring at the tattered black guy across the aisle cackling to himself. Is pitch really nothing more than a certain frequency of a plucked string? Is music merely vibrating air molecules on a collision course with the eardrum? Music, this intensely personal and emotional art, hobby, and entertainment, can make you appreciate where you are, where you come from, and can make you wonder about the world around you. And it was boiled down to a few lines in a physics book. As we know, music is more than that one line from this book; music is a craft, a piece of art melded by the artist or the listener into what they want it to be. My saxophone instructor has a plaque on his wall with the statement “music is not a science, it’s an opinion, and at its best it’s an emotion”. So how is it that music, this powerful expression of art and humanity, this emotion, can be so fundamentally, so dryly scientific? How can art and science exist together? As the author Robert Sapolsky said, “I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject, or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.”
Music and the arts are not independent of science and discovery. This quote from “The Physics of Music” captured my curiosity, so I read the rest of the book, and I was intrigued. The book talked about the different applications of music; how the effects of certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, can be lessened by playing music from that person’s childhood, and how the growth rate of cells can actually be controlled by playing different genres of music near them. In each of these cases, what started with a love of music ended with a scientific breakthrough. What led from these scientific breakthroughs were applications and passions for music.
From this correlation of art and science, this realization and acceptance that they live harmoniously together, we can begin to look at the relationship between the creators of each. For instance, the work of both scientists and artists involve similar stages of development: there is the inspiration and brainstorming stage, where the apple falls on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and where Paul McCartney meets Jude. Next is the experimentation and editing stages. The scientist conducts controlled tests of his theory, and the musician plays through a simple, basic chord progression. Lastly, there is the final product, the Theory of Relativity and the New World Symphony. But what is most in common between musical masterpieces and scientific discoveries is their openness to interpretation and change. Just look at all the arguments over the Mona Lisa’s smile and the existence of the Flat Earth Society. What artists and scientists have in common is their willingness to work in an environment of interpretation and reinterpretation, where ideas are constantly shifting and changing. Things change. Truths change. The scientist knows that his theory is not permanent, that his version of the truth is just that, a version, and will one day be replaced by a new truth. But the artist is not trying to convey a literal truth. There is no definite “truth” in art, merely a snapshot of a universal truth that will evolve and change for each person that encounters it, even through exterior changes in time and society. The scientist’s truth will be developed and supplanted; the artist’s truth will grow and expand.
Scientists and artists. Although able to be independently classified, we must each stretch that sociologically accepted boundary to think like the other. Because although the scientist may be developing theories just to “fill the gap” until the next scientist comes along, they must realize that they must think like an artist, and use they’re scientific advancements to fundamentally change the world. If we take the scientists and the artists of the world and reach across the boundary, break through the barrier holding them apart; squeeze them together…we’re left with one big group. A big group of people. Just people. And the fundamental job of this big group, the goal of all these individuals is to leave our mark, to change the world, whether that’s changing the world as a whole or changing the world for one person. Science and art are never far behind each other. With each discovery in each profession we must look at the connections. Where a musical masterpiece is in its foundation phases, we must look at what that musical masterpiece can do for the world…who it will affect, how it will inspire. When a scientific breakthrough approaches, we must look at how it fits into the world and in what ways it will change the world…who it will affect, how it will inspire. Scientific discoveries and engineered innovations should never just answer the question, but open a mind to the world, and a world of questions. Through artistic creations there is a way to use that to help and to change the world. Through the realization that vibrating particles create sound, a door should be opened, a door to the complexity of music, of the world, and of the human experience. We are all people of music and all people of science, but we should all strive to change the world.