Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Albert Einstein on Music

Albert Einstein on Music

Article from einsteinuniverse.com, a website featuring internationally acclaimed letures written by Professor Brian Foster.

Written by: Brian Foster, Experimental Particle Physicist at the Department of Physics, Oxford Univeristy, United Kingdom.


“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”-Einstein

In an article entitled “Einstein and his love of music”, Professor Brian Foster of Oxford University discusses a lesser known side of Einstein- his life as a violinist. At the age of six, Einstein began to learn the violin. He took lessons until the age of thirteen, then continued on to devote a lot of time to music when living in Switzerland. Not only was he an exceptional violinist, he was a pianist and a hearty improviser. Throughout his life, Einstein befriended many great artists, including pianist Artur Rubinstein, cellist Gregor Piatigorski, and violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who also founded the Israel Philharmonic, of which Einstein was a huge supporter. Many people have commented on the passion and sincerity of his playing, including his friend Janos Plesch, who wtote, “There are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling”.

The focal points of Einstein’s taste in music were Bach and Mozart. He tolerated but did not adore Beethoven, and was not a huge lover of Schubert, Schumman and Brahms. Einstein stopped playing towards the end of his life, but never lost his love of the violin or of music. He once said, “I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin”.

Reflection: The part of this article that interested me with regards to this course was the quote from his second wife Elsa, who said that music helped him when he was thinking about theories. According to Elsa, Einstein would retreat to his study, return to the piano and play a few chords, then return to his study eager to write more ideas down. I found this intriguing because when we think of Einstein, a brilliant physicist is usually the first thing that comes to mind for most people. It is intriguing to contemplate what tools Einstein used to encourage his own thinking and creativity. It seems that music was one of these tools. Therefore, I wonder- did music inspire Einstein? Did it relax and soothe him, particularly when he was tense and anxious in the midst of his work? Was music helpful to him because it offered such a different means of expression as compared to his career’s work? Perhaps there is something inherent within music that helped him think more clearly. This makes me question what exactly it is about music that provides inspiration for so many. I have heard (but have not confirmed) about recent studies that show nicotine to improve concentration and fluidity of thought processes. Perhaps music works in a similar way for people consumed by work in other areas. Some writers listen to music for inspiration and to aid in concentration. Perhaps what artists (writers, painters, etc.) do and the thought processes they need to do it are not all that different from what scientists too. It is highly likely that the great thinkers of our time have suffered from a “writer’s block” effect, or have sought out various ways to jump-start or perpetuate creativity.

Music has many connections to physics, in that harmonic motion of a string is a physics-based law, and sound exists on a physical level. The two fields are tightly interwoven, but one does not depend on knowledge of the other. For example, you do not need to understand the laws of physics in order to be a great musician. On the flip side, you do not need to be a proficient, emotionally expressive and/or creative musician to be an innovative physicist. Still, it may make either experience all the richer to have a basic understanding of both sides, because of how intimately related they are to each other.


Renee Kruisselbrink said...

I found this article and your reflections to be very interesting. In undergrad, my degree was piano performance, but at the same time I also took many science courses. Throughout my four years, I took biology, physics, chemistry, and even anatomy courses. I remember being in organic chemistry lab, and my science classmates were very surprised at my being in music, and vice versa for my music classmates.

But for me, this arrangement seemed to work. I would practise and work on memorizing my Beethoven sonata, and then take a break by doing my physics assignment. And if I became frustrated with a specific calculation that would not be solved, I would go back and continue practising. I found this to be a very efficient time management strategy for me.

Through this course, I was very interested to discover that there is actually a reason for this. Why did it work to practise when I got stuck at physics? And why did the physics problem suddenly make more sense when I went back to it after practising? I learned that when you are trying to figure something out, your mind is going into Beta (7 to 14 Hz or higher) brainwaves. The left side of your brain (analytical and logical side) goes into overdrive trying to reason things out. When you take a break, the left side of your brain no longer needs to work so hard and, at the same time, you’re slowing down your brainwaves. When this happens, the brainwave frequencies on both sides of your brain start to become more balanced. In other words, your brain starts to become more synchronized, and unconsciously you are synchronizing your brainwaves.

Brian Graiser said...

This explains a LOT about why I need to operate a certain way. Typically, when I'm preparing for a recital, I'll find myself getting "instrument tunnel vision;" I'll zone out and suddenly realize I've played through half a page without thinking it through or getting much out of the experience. When this happens, I remember that I'm fortunate enough to have MULTIPLE instruments at my disposal; usually, this translates into moving from practicing a marimba piece to a vibraphone piece, or a timpani piece, or a multiple-percussion piece...etc. Besides the fact that I'm working on a different piee of music, I have the added benefit of utilizing a different set of techniques, and my thought processes refelect that shift.
Another thing worth mentioning is an old axiom of mine, when people ask me if I'd rather compose or perform: I honestly can't do one without the other for very long. Certainly, they're both independent creative outlets, and of course I enjoy them based on their individual merits. But BEYOND that, I've found that I experience similar benefits to those you've mentioned; by switching from practicing to composing (or vice versa), my brain shifts into an etirely different gear, and everything feels "fresh." Maybe that's why I still haven't burned out on anything!