Science and Musical Thinking

I’ve long been interested in how science can inform what musicians do. Like others, I also make music with a lot of folks who have STEM careers (math teacher, pharmacist, surgeon, neurologist, rocket science engineer). Robert S. Root-Bernstein did some review of the literature on this and has some interesting ideas on this matter. To set up his thesis he writes of a fictional orchestral concert announcement:

This has been a very special concert in ways in which most of you are probably unaware. Everything about this concert is permeated with science. I, myself, am an expert in insects. The entire orchestra is made up of scientists and physicians. Indeed, you may well know that “doctor’s symphonies” exist in most major cities in the United States. But most importantly, all of the composers whose music we have played tonight also have ties to science. Herschel was perhaps the most famous astronomer of the early nineteenth century and some of his compositions have recently been recorded on the Newport Classics label. Berlioz was a practicing physician; Borodin was a Professor of Chemistry who pursued two professional careers simultaneously throughout his life; Ansermet trained as a mathematician and taught mathematics at the University of Lausanne before turning his attention solely to music. Iannis Xenakis is also a mathematician, who adds to his accomplishments those of a practicing architect, and he has written extensively on the interconnections between the arts and sciences. Elgar not only had a private chemistry laboratory, but actually filed a patent for a process for producing hydrogen sulfide. Bing is a cardiologist and medical researcher of international repute who has been awarded such international prizes as the Claude Bernard Medal for his scientific work.

Root-Bernstein hypothesis that the apparent correlation between music and the sciences to be contradictory to Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences┬átheories, which are currently in vogue in education and academia. In contrast to Gardner, Root-Bernstein proposes that musical thinking is an advantage to scientific problem solving.

I, on the other hand, believe that creative thinking is trans-disciplinary and transferable from one field to another. More specifically, I believe that musical and scientific abilities are what I call “correlative talents”. By correlative talents, I mean skills or abilities in several different areas that can be integrated to yield surprising and effective results. Skills associated with music–pattern-forming and pattern recognition, kinesthetic ability, imaging, aesthetic sensibility, analogizing and analysis–and indeed an understanding of music itself–have often been important components of the correlative talents of many famous scientists. One way to summarize my basic thesis would be to say that correlative talents represent harmonious ensembles of skills that enable musical scientists to “duet” better.

His arguments are compelling, if largely anecdotal. The most interesting thing to me, however, is the idea that a scientific viewpoint might also be equally helpful for great musicians. While I can think of several professional musicians who are interested in sciences, there is a cultural belief in some circles that music is an Art (definitely with a capital A) and its goal is to reach that realm of the human experience that science just isn’t capable of understanding (according to them).

Regular readers probably already know that I fall down on the side of science here. I’m a big science fan and have personally found a little scientific method applied to artistic problems are often quite helpful.

What about your own interests and strengths? How many of you musicians have a science or math background? Do you make your living as a musician or do you have STEM career? Do you think that scientific thinking can be advantageous for musical creativity?


Lyle Sanford

Dave – I think one aspect of the medical/STEM type people seeming to be more successful at music than others is that the self-discipline involved in achieving their professional credentials would come in very handily in the pursuit of music making as well.

I read the Gardner book back when it first came out and found the ideas very helpful, even if in the end they don’t prove out empirically (same thing with right/left brain). Until something else comes along, it’s a great way to conceptualize how different personalities manifest and to come up with ways to help different people find their particular music making path. I think that even within the musical frame of mind there are subsets – some people are especially strong in rhythm, or harmony, or are natural performers. As a therapist I often try to identify strengths and work out from that.

I completely agree with your rejection of the Art/Science duality. As you and Root-Berstien say – there are all kinds of correlations and using what we can of one to better understand the other can be really helpful.

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