The sounds of science: how physics and music can help each other
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I can’t pretend ever to have fully grasped the space-time continuum but two minutes into a conversation with Heinrich Mueller and I appear to be shuttling back through time. “Quantum behaviour,” he says – and all of a sudden I’m having to concentrate very, very hard in my physics lesson – “would have a relevance, since we are considering atomic entities, namely the movement, storage and manipulation of electrons.”
Mueller is not a physics teacher. He is a techno music producer, one half of the legendary outfit Dopplereffekt. Dopplereffekt’s club nights around Europe draw huge crowds, and he is the last person with whom I’d expect to discuss atomic entities and quantum behaviour. But Dopplereffekt’s albums include Calabi Yau Space, a reference to the Calabi Yau manifold, whose properties, in case you need a quick refresher, yield applications in theoretical physics such as superstring theory. His live stage shows incorporate spectacular imagery from the world of physics.
Mueller’s physics knowledge was absorbed, he says, “in the fashion of an autodidact”, though he was always interested in natural science. “My musical work was a vehicle to assist in the dissemination of these concepts,” he says. For him, “electronic music is firmly based on scientific principles. A relation of my music to physics is logical and natural: one is an outgrowth of the other.”
At first glance, the yoking together of a rigorously analytical natural science with the most ephemeral and soulful of art forms might seem a stretch. But it’s no coincidence that physicists often make superb musicians – indeed the leading science and engineering university, Imperial College, offers a joint degree with the Royal College of Music. Brian May, who is affiliated to Imperial’s astrophysics department, also happens to be the guitarist of Queen. Professor Brian Cox was the keyboard player in 1990s pop group D:Ream (and now regularly professes a love of Mahler).
And of course, the most famous physicist of all was a passionate musician. According to his son, whenever Einstein felt he had “come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music. That would usually resolve all his difficulties.” Einstein was obsessed with composers such as Bach and Mozart but maybe he would also have got a kick out of Jarvis Cocker’s relativity ballad “Quantum Theory”, Moby’s astrophysics-infused “We Are All Made of Stars” or John Adams’ Oppenheimer-based opera Doctor Atomic.
But if the themes of physics persistently insinuate themselves into the musical universe, the connection goes far deeper than mere inspiration. While some artists might take the Keatsian approach that cold scientific scrutiny of anything aesthetic “will clip an angel’s wing, conquer all mystery by rule and line”, all music is, at some level, physics – from the vibration of strings to the sound waves produced; from the way an instrument is constructed to the physiology of what happens in our ear when we hear it played. Both physicists and composers are in the everyday business of dealing with complex abstract patterns. And while musicians might disagree on everything from emotional interpretation to dynamics to phrasing, they all accept that a modern concert “A” generally vibrates at a frequency of 440 Hertz.
“There’s a whole underlying level of physics which is the basis on which musical sounds are produced,” says Brian Foster, professor of experimental physics at Oxford university. For the past eight years Foster has presented a live touring show called Einstein’s Universe. The project brings particle physics to life through a discussion of Einstein’s love of music; interspersing hard science with live performance from violinist Jack Liebeck to better demonstrate phenomena such as diffraction and superstring theory. Foster says the musical element of Einstein’s Universe is “fantastically useful … for actually illustrating what I do in physics at the atomic level”.
You could, of course, argue that music is no more physics than literature is the alphabet – and none of this is to deny that “music” as we know it begins from a spark of non-intellectual creativity. While Foster says it is “almost certainly true that to be a great composer you have to have the sort of imagination or the ability to think in complex mathematical patterns”, he admits that these composers don’t necessarily have to “think of those as being mathematical patterns”.
Even JS Bach, whose sublime music is often held up as the pinnacle of mathematical and scientific perfection, may not have been conscious of the patterns he was sequencing. “Bach worked so hard, not to mention having all those kids, I doubt he had time for idle fiddling with numbers,” jokes Foster. “I suspect he just kept writing his weekly cantata and hoping for the best.”
Yet for many contemporary musicians, the reliance on science is conscious rather than intuitive. Describing the relationship between his techno music and physics as “symbiotic”, Mueller imagines “distinct parallels in the train of reasoning between the physicist and the electronic music production process”. He employs something akin to the “scientific method” to create his tunes, he says. “Theory and experimentation are the primary techniques and you are always presented with unknowns and variables.”
The pre-eminent British composer George Benjamin also hints that the creation of music can be less mystical and more mathematical than we might assume. Benjamin – who, at 16, was compared to Mozart by Olivier Messiaen – says an amateur interest in science is his “habitual preoccupation”. Although he too had no formal science training beyond school, he says that reading books on topics as varied as “chaos theory, symmetry, the perception of time, prime numbers and code-breaking has proved unexpectedly stimulating”. Over the years he has developed quasi-mathematical methods which can “act as a tool to assist the creation of complex structures … which the intuition alone could not manage”.
Benjamin’s latest work was the opera Written on Skin, which was met with rhapsodic critical acclaim. While certain passages he wrote “virtually freehand, with just the text and my intuition as guide”, he utilised the “compositional scaffolding” of these more mathematical procedures elsewhere. “Without [them], the more complex passages, potentially representing opposed, though simultaneous, points of view onstage, would not have been possible.” The mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, tells me that when Benjamin showed him these procedures one afternoon, he was flabbergasted. “What he had come up with was an extremely interesting mathematical structure which I’d never seen before.”
Physics is not only the fundamental precursor to what becomes, in our ear, “music”: it can play a vital role in its creation too. But does the relationship work both ways? Can music be of any use to physics? For the ancients, who conferred on music a status equal to that of mathematics, geometry and astronomy, the answer would be obvious – but we still believe that the arts and sciences remain on either side of a divide across which, as the scientist and novelist CP Snow said, they “pull faces at each other in a fug of wilful mutual incomprehension”.
Yet the properties of music can be uniquely instructive to physicists. “The relationship lies in a common quest for harmony,” says Domenico Vicinanza, formerly of the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics. He is now the arts and humanities manager at DANTE, the Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe, in Cambridge. “Harmony is a term used in science and music with more or less the same meaning. It’s a two-way process.”
Vicinanza, who holds a PhD in particle physics and is a trained classical composer, works with organisations including Nasa and Cern in a branch of physics called sonification. Using data from entities as varied as the Large Hadron Collider, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts or a volcano, Vicinanza maps the information – which might be magnetic field measurements from 18 billion kilometres away, or a volcanic seismogram – and converts the data into something akin to a musical score.
The power of sonification, Vicinanza explains, lies in the fact that the ear is naturally able to hear data and detect anomalies, while simultaneously recognising abstract patterns, structures and sequences as a function of time (see First Person).
“Music is a highly structured system and a really powerful way of conveying information and describing things,” says Vicinanza. “Sound is not directional. If you look at a graph, you have to have your eyes glued to a screen to monitor the changes. If you search a particular value in a huge background, it can be difficult to spot it in a graph. Finding an irregularity through a melody is a much easier task.”
It’s a captivating notion but, for all my eager listening to Vicinanza’s sonification of the Higgs boson while doing a grocery run the other day, I regret to report it did not confer any deeper understanding of what the God particle actually is – other than that it has an unexpectedly catchy melody. But for scientists with the facility to analyse the data, sonification can provide a rich seam of information. “Sound is intrinsically richer than vision,” says Vicinanza. “The visual has just three dimensions, whereas music has the power to pack in a lot more data.”
Sonification can be employed in a diverse array of fields, from science and engineering to education, surveillance and medicine. Recently, Vicinanza has been using it to aid research into epilepsy.
“We take electroencephalogram (EEG) data and convert it into wave forms and melodies with a precise goal of identifying temporal patterns embedded in the EEGs of epileptic patients,” he says. “So we are using music scales and intervals to convey specific neurological information to scientists. It is rigorous mapping of data to sound, but I’m also using the musical side of my brain to use sequences that work together from a harmonic point of view. It’s a long process but it gives the scientists exactly the perspective they need. Ultimately it can be a really powerful tool for seizure prevention.”
Seizure prevention seems a disproportionately impressive achievement for a string of black dots on a stave, yet this is not the only area in which humble music seems to punch above its weight in the lab. Henrik J Jensen is a professor of mathematical physics at Imperial. He has been leading research into causality that analyses the brain dynamics of a group of chamber musicians – playing both improvised and non-improvised music – and of their audience as they listen.
The potential implications are momentous. “What we are looking at with a brain playing music is one of the most complex systems you can think of,” he explains. “If we can pinpoint how information and causation flows between participants, simply by analysing the EEG signals measured from individual brains, those same methods could help us understand causations and interrelatedness in many other complex systems, such as finance – to figure out why currencies are interrelated, or what causes a shift in interest rates; also ecology, medicine, climate change. What is the causation, what really is it that makes the temperature increase? We could use this method in any field in which you need to understand how things are connected.”
Jensen says he has never used a research tool as effective as this. And with such wide prospective application, one might expect the money to be pouring in to support it. But Jensen fears the project’s “cross-disciplinary” nature means it falls between two stools; he has not received a penny in grants so far. “Everyone finds the results fascinating but we haven’t been able to find any funding, so that puts severe limitations on where we can take it. This is not typical medical research, it’s not neuroscience research, but it’s clear conceptually that this has enormous potential in terms of understanding similar types of brain activity. We need funding for some equipment and man hours.”
Others believe that not encouraging more shared work between the two disciplines wastes an opportunity. “Physicists and musicians might have very different ways of looking at the world,” says du Sautoy, “but if you combine them, you’re going to get access to low-lying fruit that nobody has seen before. You appreciate things more deeply and can go further in whatever you’re doing with inputs of new language to see your structures in new ways.”
Du Sautoy reminds me that the most famous sequence of numbers in the world was discovered by a group of Indian musicians experimenting with rhythmic possibilities, long before a certain 13th-century mathematician named Fibonacci got there. “Often a musician can arrive at a new structure which has scientific resonance. Music can raise questions for us that we’ve never really thought of before.” From techno to relativity theories, he continues, “we are moving into an age where people who are making the big progress are those who are prepared to straddle several areas.”
Clemency Burton-Hill presents the ‘Breakfast Show’ on BBC Radio 3. To comment please email firstname.lastname@example.org