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Good vibrations: the role of music in Einstein’s thinking

Einstein claimed that, had he not pursued science, he would have been a musician. Robert and Talbot Trudeau

Good vibrations: the role of music in Einstein’s thinking

As we marvel at science’s latest extraordinary breakthrough, it’s also an opportunity to ponder what kind of thinker Albert Einstein was.

Born two decades before the beginning of the 20th century, what kind of mind was his that could come up with ideas that would have to wait until the second decade of the 21st century to be proven correct?

The man responsible for predicting the existence of gravitational waves as the last brick in his theory of general relativity is so often reduced to a tongue-poking electric-hair-shock caricature: the slightly mad but cuddly genius who is just different to everybody else.

The true picture is perhaps less colorful; Einstein was the product of a well-rounded education that, importantly, very much included the arts and humanities.

It’s little known that Einstein was an accomplished violinist, and even less known that had he not pursued science, he said he would have been a musician:

I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.

Looking at the role of music in Einstein’s thinking sheds some light on how he shaped his most profound scientific ideas. His example suggests that in being intimately involved with the scientific complexity of music, he was able to bring a uniquely aesthetic quality to his theories. He wanted his science to be unified, harmonious, expressed simply, and to convey a sense of beauty of form.

He confessed to thinking about science in terms of images and intuitions, often drawn directly from his experiences as a musician, only later converting these into logic, words and mathematics.

Music of the Spheres

Of the many mind-blowing things to consider in the gravitational wave discovery, there’s probably one that would have particularly piqued Einstein’s interest. This incredible sound:

LIGO Gravitational Wave Chirp.

In converting the gravitational wave into a sound wave, we have the astonishing privilege of being able to hear the echo of a billion-year old explosion from an incomprehensibly distant galaxy.

That ripple in space-time took a thousand million years to reach us, hurtling through the void at 299,000 kilometres a second.

A solitary bass drum-like thwack represents the literal transposition, emerging from an awe-inspiring cosmic background noise. Adjusted to better suit the human ear, it sounds eerily like a pebble dropped into a bucket of water.

It’s strange to think that dropping a pebble in water produces essentially the same rippling sound effect as colliding super-black holes a billion light years away in time and space.

Strange but also fitting; it partially suggests the elemental power of sound, linked as it is to movement, a signal of life, dynamism and creation.

Whether it’s clapping hands, a resonating violin string, or black holes 30-times larger than our sun spinning around each other at 100 times a second, something is going to get displaced.

In the first two actions, displaced air molecules bump up against neighbouring air molecules. The vibration continues as a wave until hitting something than can absorb or stop it, such as an ear drum.

In the cosmic example, it is space and time which are displaced, creating a different kind of wave, one that can travel through a vacuum for aeons.

Einstein, apart from being overjoyed that his prediction had been confirmed, would have been fascinated by the sound of that gravitational ripple. According to Einstein himself, sound, in the form of music, gave him more pleasure than anything else in life.

Far more than a diversion or hobby, music was such a part of the man that it seems to have played a role in his scientific working processes.

Einstein’s second wife Elsa told the story of him one day appearing totally lost in thought, wandering to the piano and playing for half an hour while intermittently jotting down notes.

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Disappearing into a room for two weeks (emerging for the odd piano session), he then surfaced with a working draft of the theory of general relativity.

Of course, piano playing and the theory of general relativity are not related in any direct or tangible sense. On one level, the story suggests that for Einstein, piano playing had the same effect walking has for many people. Ambulatory thinking processes release creative juices.

Beethoven knew it, as did apparently the ancient Greeks, not to mention many generations of writers.

But there were deeper levels to the science-music relationship in Einstein’s mind. There’s some evidence music played a role in the very shaping of his most important scientific discoveries.

To understand how, it’s important to know something about Einstein’s musical background, as well as his two favourite creators of music; the composers J.S. Bach and W.A. Mozart.

Violin lessons

We tend to forget the youthful Einstein was not only a looker, but an almost bohemian type whose violin playing was a well-known and celebrated aspect of his public persona.

Einstein could often be found onstage performing string quartets with some of the era’s greatest musicians, acquitting himself with aplomb if not distinction.

The range of intellectual stimuli Einstein gained from playing music, and its impact on his visionary approach to science, should probably not be underestimated.

It wasn’t by chance that Einstein’s two most beloved composers represented the most celebrated practitioners of a particularly favoured approach within European classical music: tonality in the service of formal structure.

Tonality is a concept, much like gravity, that (almost) everyone knows about instinctively, with or without specialist training. Music with a “tonal centre” has existed for about half a millennium, and can be heard in music emerging from the Italian Renaissance, through to the popular, film and TV music of today.

In fact the gravity analogy is usually extended into metaphor when explaining tonality: it is music that has a gravitational centre, a pitch that sounds most stable, more like the “home base” than any other pitch – the sun in a solar system of pitch-planets.

The other pitches “orbit” around the tonally central pitch, with varying degrees of gravitational pull toward the centre. Some are weaker and further away, others are close and feel the pull more strongly.

Most people hearing the Preludio from Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 3 would be able to identify this central pitch (called “the tonic”) simply by listening to the opening and then humming whatever note sounded the most important.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Partita No. 3, BWV 1006 | Hilary Hahn.

Of course, things can always get a lot more complex, and the real story is what Bach and Mozart were able to build within this system of order and balanced forces.

Bach’s music is synonymous with the art of musical counterpoint; a way of layering different melodies, (anywhere between two to five is common enough), so that they retain independence, yet work together in a unified way.

This clip of Bach’s fugue for Organ in C minor BWV 542 depicts the complexities of counterpoint in such a way that non-readers of music will appreciate.

Bach, “Great” Fugue in G minor, BWV 542.

One melody, or “voice” becomes, two, then three, then eventually four. The “architecture” metaphor is easily apparent - the music feels so beautifully constructed, complex and ornate yet balanced and proportioned, like a cathedral or palace (or indeed a scientific formula).

It was probably Mozart, however, who was even closer to Einstein’s heart. His formative musical years were proximate to a “back to Mozart” movement in Europe, a reaction to the perceived decadence and musical indulgence of Wagner and his monumentally long operas.

At a time when Wagner had stretched the tonal system to its limits, foreshadowing its collapse in European art music of the 20th century, Mozart’s image was re-polished and deemed to embody an approach that unified balanced architectural perfection with beauty of expression.

The finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, K551 (appropriately nicknamed “Jupiter”) provides a handy example of what Einstein saw in this music. Apart from the music’s exhilarating exuberance, the fourth movement is noteworthy for combining the most sophisticated formal design of Mozart’s era (late 18th century sonata form) with the most sophisticated texture of Bach’s (early 18th century fugue).

Einstein would have probably especially enjoyed the extraordinary musical structures Mozart creates in the final minutes of the Jupiter, its coda. After a suspenseful pause, and turning some of his melodies upside down just for fun, Mozart takes five musical themes (like melodies but shorter, fragmented) from earlier sections and layers them all on top of each other, narrowly avoiding cacophony through the complex science of musical construction.

Much like the mathematics involved in relativity, it’s actually quite difficult to follow what happens here in real time. The coda starts around 10:24, but the whole movement should really be listened to.

Mozart Symphony 41 C Major – KV 551 – 4th Movement Molto Allegro

Despite the calculation involved in music like that of the Jupiter, learned complexity was never a means unto itself for these composers. Mozart has a reputation for expressing more than most composers while using the fewest notes. The vulnerable beauty of economically expressed meaning can be heard in the slow movement from the A Major Piano Concerto K488.

Clara Haskil “Piano Concerto No 23” Mozart (2. Mov.).

It’s music such as this the led to now rather clichéd notion that Mozart appeared not to “create” his music, but discovered it ready made. Einstein sought a similar purity, economy and harmoniousness of vision for his theories.

What relevance does this musical footnote have at a moment when we are celebrating the scientific breakthrough of the century? I believe it’s an opportunity to broaden our understanding of the ways in which this particular mind of apparent genius worked, to contemplate what kind of lessons can be learned today.

What stands out is Einstein’s multi-dimensional approach to thinking. He saw complementarity between disciplines, and wouldn’t dream of siloing Science and the Humanities in separate bins.

As the importance of science and technology in combating inexorable environmental catastrophe becomes ever more incontrovertible, the importance of initiatives such as the STEM educational grouping appears self-evident.

But it’s clear from Einstein’s example that innovation in STEM involves modes of thinking that can come from the arts. For Einstein, it was the notion that the architectural and formal beauty he found in music could inform the inspiration and design of his scientific theories.

Music inspired and guided him; it stimulated parts of his brain that could not be accessed through sitting at his desk. It gave him a sense of patterns, feelings, hunches, intuitions – all manner of sensual information that could be described as ways of thinking that don’t involve words.

Some have suggested STEAM, so as to include the Arts in the grouping. Or STREAM, to include Reading and Writing. Wouldn’t it be great though if all human intellectual endeavours were simply treated equally?

Einstein used as many parts of his mind as he could to experience and interpret the world, to create knowledge. And yet again, it’s been proven that he’s not a bad example to follow.

See also: Gravitational waves add a new note to our musical universe