Music and the Making of Modern Science by Peter Pesic

This is a book that explores the many-faceted role music has played in the historical development of western science. It is very well researched (with extensive footnotes) and could easily be used as the basis for a university level science/music history course. For anyone who likes science and believes music is more important in our lives and history than generally acknowledged, this book provides many concrete examples of the importance of music in the lives of ground-breaking scientists. In fact, there is a rather fun quote in the discussion of Schrodinger where “As his biographer observed, almost uniquely among theoretical physicists, Erwin not only did not play any instrument himself, but even displayed an active dislike for most kinds of music, except the occasional love song.” And then of course, even Schrodinger resorts at some point to musical analogies when describing the emission frequencies of hydrogen.

The book starts with the ancient Greeks and these early chapters were fascinating because at that point, the study of music and science had not differentiated. As pointed out in the first chapter, “The ancient Greek word mousike denoted the activities of all the Muses, vocal and instrumental art as well as the arts of poetry and dance, which the followers of Pythagorus then connected with their teaching that all is number, thereby also implying that all is music.” The chapter goes on to talk about early number theory inspired by musical intervals and also how Plato established the quadrivium curriculum of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy as the basic liberal education of natural philosophers for millennia.

I’ve always enjoyed the story of Johannes Kepler searching for laws of planetary motions based on the famous “Harmony of the Spheres” idea. In Chapter 5, “Kepler and the Song of the Earth”, Kepler’s musical background and ideas on applying musical theory to planetary motion is thoroughly examined as he assigns a particular vocal part to each planet: Mercury – Soprano, Earth and Venus – Altos, Tenor – Mars, and Bass – Jupiter and Saturn. In this chapter, you can follow his seemingly desperate search to find musical analogies for each planetary motion. Kepler’s musically related research has consequently inspired generations of scientists and musicians. One of my personal favorites is modern attempts to create actual music from Kepler’s music/mathematical ideas:

YouTube Video describing Kepler and the Harmony of the Spheres for the layman:

YouTube Video with a musical example of literally transcribing the orbital motions of the planets into music:

The book then goes on to describe the musical background of many subsequent ground-breaking scientists and how study of music and musical theory influenced and helped advance their scientific achievements. For example, the greatest of the Natural Philosophers, Isaac Newton, used musical theory in his optical writings, as he relied on a musical analogy to compare the seven notes of the diatonic (western music’s major scale) scale to the seven colors of the light spectrum (the rainbow). The famous mathematician, Leonhard Euler, studied music as a part of mathematics and tried to describe whether music was consonant or dissonant based on study of numeric ratios and equations. Max Planck was a pianist of considerable skill and actually considered pursuing a career in music instead of physics. His study of the joys of an equal temperament scale as opposed to the “natural” scale evidently helped free him from devotion to absolute laws of thermodynamics and open his mind to new possibilities.

The last chapter, “Unheard Harmonies” discusses how many scientists in more modern generations are musical enthusiasts, but that the study of music seems to no longer be directly related to their scientific achievements. For example, Einstein was famously loyal to his violin and to Mozart, yet wrote that “music does not influence research work, but both are nourished by the same sort of longing, and that they complement each other in the satisfaction they offer.”  However, playing music did seem to facilitate his breakthroughs as his sister explained that Einstein’s musical reveries “put him in a peaceful state of mind, which facilitated his reflection. For later on, when great problems preoccupied him, he often suddenly stood up and declared: “There, now I’ve got it.””

This book isn’t for everyone, it is very technical and some understanding of the relevant scientific concepts is essential. I think only people who have a strong love of music, history, and science would find this book fun. However, for those people, it is a book that reminds us that love and study of music inspires scientists and all of us in ways that are not normally acknowledged.

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