Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Physics and music: what is the connection?

Reading a few popular science books when I was younger, I remember learning that Richard Feynman played the bongo and Albert Einstein played the violin. Since then I’ve discovered many more examples of brilliant physicists who were also musicians. So is there something about the skills, mindset or attitude of physicists that make them good musicians?
Today I discovered that a group of people at CERN who work on the ATLAS experiment have recorded an album called Resonance. Even though I used to work on ATLAS, just for the record, I’m not involved the album! That said, I’m still going to give it a blatant plug – so go and buy it, proceeds go to charity.
Resonance - click the image for their website.

Most of my friends and colleagues who I’ve studied or worked with in physics are musical. I know so many singers, guitarists and pianists that it’s somewhat surprising I hadn’t really noticed it before. My only excuse for not noticing is that maybe other common themes - like the high proportion of men or the tendency for many physicists to ignore the entire fashion industry (their own peril) – were more noticeable to me at the time.
Perhaps I haven’t noticed because I am musical myself so I’ve been used to having lots of musical friends. Whatever the reason, I suppose I should have realised the trend when I found out that the physics department at Oxford have their own choir. The choir only rehearses and performs at Christmas for the departmental carol service, but I think its existence says something about the tendency for physicists to be musical. But why is that the case?
If we wanted to be pragmatic we would hold off the question “why?” until a proper study is done of the statistical significance of physicists who are musical. If you know of such a study – leave me a comment!
For the sake of argument though, if such a study revealed the trend that physicists are, indeed, more musical than the general population, then the “why?” question becomes more important.
In many ways, being a physicist is like being a musician. It requires a lot of patience, a willingness to get things wrong and to learn from mistakes. Research itself is often quite a creative process. In a similar way to music it requires its own language and way of expressing itself.
On the other hand, when I sing or when I hear my friends play I’m sure they aren’t thinking about the fractional relationships between frequencies or the exact subdivisions of rhythms. Most of them are probably using music as a bit of a release from their everyday activities. In this sense, being a physicist is completely different from being a musician.
My opinion? Many physicists will tell you that there is something beautiful and elegant about the workings of the universe, even if we don’t fully understand it. Perhaps it is the similarity between this and the beauty of good music that draws us in? It can be hard to admit it, but maybe we physicists are just a little bit romantic.


  1. Hmmm, I think you're over-egging the pudding there. Based on my admittedly anecdotal experience, the number of physicists that are 'musical' is about the same proportion as any class of schoolchildren. Does that make schoolkids particularly musical? I'm not sure it does!

    The bongo is not an instrument either. The 'Feynman played the bongo' and 'Einstein played the violin' is a typical media refrain, a clumsy method of 'making science accessible.' Like George Charpak playing frisbee, only not so Dan Brown.

  2. What I meant is that physicists are often very GOOD musicians - so rather not like schoolchildren, generally speaking. Same goes with Feynman and Einstein, they were actually particularly good musicians!

  3. I'm applying to five Physics with Music combined courses for university so I definitely see the connection