This investigative arts reporter is at a rehearsal of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra on a tip that an unusual number of musicians have engineering and hard science backgrounds. When I first got this assignment, I thought it would be one of those hokey, pop-science stories about left brains and right brains, which reporters sometimes have to do, like covering haunted houses, where you have to pretend you don’t know it’s complete bullshit.Or is it?
Then I start taking down names: The conductor, Bahman Saless, was a physicist working in relativity. The bassist, Kevin Sylves, is an aerospace engineer. The violin section is comprised of a biochemist and physicist. “Yoriko studied physics,” Saless says, pointing to the woman in back. All told, a full 30 percent of the 25-chair orchestra boasts a science background — there could be more who haven’t spoken up. It’s really starting to freak me out.
Dr. Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works, is skeptical of reading too much into this: “I don’t know — it may be a coincidence, or at least a by-product of the large number of academics in the Boulder area, and the fact that at least older academics tend to be culture snobs. There have been speculations that music and math go together, but there are an awful lot of great musicians that would be dubious mathematical minds, and vice-versa. Ditto with logic. Would Jimi Hendrix be a competent mathematician? Thelonious Monk?” (But to be fair, scientists can rock: Rock It Science was founded by Joe LeDoux of the Amygdaloids, and Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin is a biologist.)
At any rate, I wonder why the melding of the two makes sense for these particular musician/scientists.Biology
When humans began standing upright, the vocal chords had to drop to make room for the spine to enter the skull from the bottom, extending the range of sounds that could be made. As proto-humans developed language, the brain evolved to accommodate grammar: the rules by which sounds can be arranged to produce infinite meanings, which music appears to mimick.
“Music is of course very mathematical,” says biochemist Johannes Rudolph, who plays violin. “What makes it great is that all the little math pieces add up to something that is enjoyable to the ear. Science is similar in that respect: from my biochemist’s perspective, life is just a bunch of molecules running around your cell. What is amazing about life is that all those simple little chemical reactions that go on inside the cell add up to something that can reproduce and be alive. So in that sense, music and chemistry are very much alike: simple math/science concepts that, when put together, create something much larger and more magical (-seeming).”
Evolutionary biologists suggest music may have had benefits, such as encouraging group cohesion or attracting mates. However, Pinker thinks music may have just been an offshoot of other adaptations. “Most people who write about the psychology of music hate my hypothesis that music is a by-product of evolution rather than an adaptation, but no one has ever given a good counterargument.”
He thinks the brain developed to interpret the world and finds the recognizing of patterns satisfying — music tickles that circuitry in a pleasing way. Just because the brain is designed to connect dots doesn’t mean every connection exists in objective reality.
“Music vs. science. It’s really like saying you like more than one kind of bread or more than one kind of activity,” Rudolph says. “Why wouldn’t you like both? We are not completely one-sided, just because we are scientists, or musicians.”Math
Tehran-born Saless immigrated to England when he was 14 to flee the Iranian Revolution, eventually ending up at the University of Colorado to study physics. Like many of his colleagues, music was always a part of his life, and he played in the Boulder Philharmonic while he worked on his thesis. When he graduated, he took a job in L.A. to work as a research scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center while studying film scoring at night, and eventually moonlighted scoring the previews to films like Carlito’s Way.
Saless returned to Boulder to teach at the university, and founded the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, initially with musicians he knew through the Philharmonic. “I don’t think you can find a good musician who doesn’t have an analytical mind,” he says. “You need to count, first of all. You need a certain amount of logic to hold a beat.”
For him, science and music are about patterns. “If you were to do scientific research, one of the things you do is look for patterns: How does nature react? Does it have a pattern? Can you repeat it?”
He sees a pattern in the history of music, oscillating between disciplined and free form. “When you talk about the Baroque, everything was about precision because this was right after we discovered the Earth was not the center of the universe,” he says. Not surprisingly, the most mathematical of musicians, Bach, hails from this era. Some of his melodies are musical palindromes, others are inversions of other melodies, or played at higher pitch and tempos so they sound entirely new.
“Certain melodies, the same melody is being played, but five notes higher,” he says. “That pattern is all over the place, everyplace that’s imaginable.” Discovering an iteration of the melody is something like discovering a new physical law. “It gives you a certain feeling of satisfaction because you’ve discovered the pattern.”
Sometimes, it is just as satisfying when the pattern is broken. Just when you think you know what to expect, the musician throws you for a loop. “A good composer knows how to use these patterns to make you think twice about something,” he says.
It’s not so unlike the sense of wonder one gets when one stumbles upon an exception to a well-known law of nature. It’s how scientists discovered quantum physics. “We got to a place where the old experiments started not to make sense because our precision went up so much, we started to observe new effects and had to explore new avenues,” he says.
Saless is all musician now, though he says both professions came down to the same thing: “The pattern — to come up with something that means something all by itself that will last after I’m gone, hopefully, whether that is in science or music.”Geology
To find oil, geologists send a pulse into the ground, and this sonic wave changes amplitude as it travels through different densities of rock, much like different thicknesses of strings. When waves hit the next strata at certain angles, some pitches bounce back, while others continue strumming downward. When these vibrations return to the surface, they make a chord the seismologist divides into its separate notes: shale is an A, a hollow cavity that might contain petroleum a high E.
Michael Holmes’ company, Digital Formation, takes this tablature and interprets the piece for petroleum companies, but Holmes finds value beyond a new oil deposit. “Oh, absolutely, there’s a beauty [to this data],” Holmes says. “It’s extraordinarily good programming, and it is beautiful… we’re presenting it in a graphical way.”
Holmes, who is an atheist, likes to quote something Jacob Bronowski said when observing gothic architecture in northern Europe in his series Ascent of Man: the beauty was a testament to the glory of man, not of God. “With Bach, there’s just a whole wonder of beauty in the world that you don’t need anything outside of that beauty to explain.”
For him, music is a religious experience, something he turns to for comfort in hard times. “Music solves a huge amount of emotional needs,” he says. “When I’m emotionally distraught, music is what I turn to. When I’m intellectually distraught, I turn to science.”Grand Unified Theory
In quantum physics, the universe tends to like duality: matter and antimatter, positive and negative charges. A photon of light can be described as both a particle and a wave.
“If you look in the psychology, you have a balanced brain, the left and the right work together very well,” Saless says, and there may be something to that.
In the ’90s, the astrophysicist Bernard Haisch came up with the idea that matter is formed through the jiggling of a quantum vacuum. Something can, indeed, come from nothing, like sound: a string is plucked, sending pulses through the air. The atoms themselves do not change or increase in number, but are rather set in motion in a way our ears detect.
Pluck a vacuum and the vibrations set in motion are matter, their weight and solidity nothing more than that force acting upon ours. Every particle is but a note in the grand symphony that is everything. If true, everything we touch, everything we study, everything we are is music. And science. Like a photon of light, music and science are the same.