Why are so many scientists also musicians?
Over the last ten years I’ve interviewed several people about their adventures in music and science, and I often asked them why they thought that music was a popular activity among scientists.
“Wait,” I hear you ask, “is it, though?”. Yes. Although there are not very many formal studies, all the evidence suggests that music is an exceptionally popular hobby for scientists. Both systematic studies and anecdotes point in this direction, and I have yet to find any support of the contrary. Even C.P. Snow, in his famous essay about how the sciences and arts/humanities were separate worlds, conceded that music was the exception – the one art that scientists happily embraced.
Okay, but why?
When I asked musicians/scientists why they thought this was a popular combination, they gave a bunch of different reasons. Roughly, these fall into four categories, and as you read through them you’ll probably agree more with some than with others. Before you complain about that in the comments, do read on. You’re not wrong…
Reason 1: Mathematics/patterns
Music (in particular Bach) is very mathematical, and there is a lot of physics involved in playing an instrument. Music composition follows certain rules, similar to scientific equations that must be balanced a certain way. So, maybe that is just very appealing to the kind of people who love this sort of systematic thinking.
Reason 2: Creativity/experimenting
Writing music or designing a scientific experiment are both creative endeavours. Someone who enjoys piecing together the perfect experiment might also enjoy puzzling with a music arrangement. Plus, both careers involve standing in front of an audience to share your work – one at gigs, the other at conferences and seminars.
Reason 3: A welcome distraction
This argument says that music is actually very different from doing science. After a long day in the lab or behind the computer, it’s a welcome distraction to go to rehearsal or to pluck away at an instrument at home.
Reason 4: Class/upbringing
This applies particularly to classically trained musicians: If you grew up in the kind of family that sent their kids to after school music classes, then you’re probably more likely to also have been encouraged to go to university and study science. Vice versa, if you grew up in an environment where nobody had ever seen a scientist or thought about science, you probably also didn’t get private music lessons.
As I said, none of these are great. Music is more than math. I don’t consider the counting and rules that apply to music to be in any way related to the way I think about science. Creativity might be a driving force for some musicians, but there is not a lot of creative thought involved in playing or singing from sheet music (which a lot of scientists do). And I doubt anyone went into science to satisfy their love of performing. It’s a useful skill, but not a requirement of the job. The “welcome distraction” argument holds a lot of merit, but why does that distraction have to be music? Wouldn’t intramural sports or painting classes be equally distracting? Finally, the class argument makes sense only for certain fields of music, and is itself an elitist argument that completely ignores, for example, the role that hip hop can play in science education.
So? What’s the real reason for the large numbers of musicians among scientists? It’s probably a mix of all of them! For me, it has mostly been a welcome distraction. I could never just do one thing. But I recognize that I had the opportunity to do both because I was sent to after school music lessons as a kid, and I also kind of enjoy the systematic and experimental nature of learning a new piece.
In the end, I think that the question of why there is a lot of overlap between musicians and scientists is not the most interesting question. Much more interesting would be to ask how music and science can benefit from having people interested in both areas, but I’ll leave that for another time.
Musicians & Scientists Quarterly Newsletter
Science songs – why so silly?
Why are songs about science often so silly?
You know what I mean. They try to fit long words in the lyrics for the sake of scientific accuracy, they’re reductionist and literal, and they’re often parodies of existing songs with the words changed to be about science.
Some of them are really popular. These days, Tom Lehrer’s Elements song is probably better known than the original words to Gilbert and Sullivan’s tune. Science comedy is gaining in popularity, and silly songs about science seem to have an audience on YouTube as well.
But why are they always silly? Or: Why are there so few serious songs about science?
One reason is that to many people, “science” is abstract and impersonal. It’s not considered a topic for an emotional song. There are far more songs about technology (like email or phones) because technology is integrated in people’s day-to-day lives. Arcade Fire’s We Used To Wait is a good example. Science, on the other hand, is seen as impersonal: it’s taught in school as discovery of facts that are completely independent of the person observing them.
When the topic of songs is “scientists” rather than “science”, the tone shifts to something less silly and less literal. Scientists in music are often symbolic for determination and stubbornness. In The Flaming Lips’ Race for the Prize, two scientists are “locked in heated battle”, “so determined” to find a cure “if it kills them”. In Coldplay’s The Scientist, probably the most well-known (but not the best) scientist song, the metaphorical scientist character understands science better than love. Here, science is the opposite of emotion.
Songs about science itself, rather than songs about fictional scientists, are often cheery folksy tunes or parodies of pop songs in which words like “photosynthesis” and “deoxyribose” have to be worked into the meter, and where scientific accuracy is more important than creating something that’s pleasant to listen to. Metaphors are rare. Everything is literal. In a science song you can’t just say things like “science is the opposite of emotion”, which I wrote in the paragraph above, and expect people to know that this is not really true, and that it was shorthand for “people sometimes use science as a metaphor to describe a lack of emotion”. People might misunderstand. Everything in a science song has to be accurate, and that’s what often makes it silly. It’s contrived.
Science songs have such a reputation for silliness that people joke about it. Country singer Brad Paisley quipped at A Prairie Home Companion that he wrote an album about geology. The audience immediately laughed. He then proceeded to sing about the geological features of Tennessee, still to a lot of laughter. When the song ends, host Garrison Keillor says “That’s about as good as a song about geology gets”. Music about science is inherently silly because who wants to listen to a bunch of facts set to music?
Some science songs are deliberate educational tools, where being factual is important, but many others are not. YouTube is full of science parodies. They’re not all trying to teach you something – they’re having fun. People watch the videos, because they know the original song and the scientific references, and they want to laugh along with the creators.
It’s basically fan art, and in that sense, it’s very similar to filk.
Probably the only music genre to have gotten its name through a typo, filk is music created by science fiction fans, about the science fiction universes and characters they love. It originated at sci-fi conventions where people brought instruments and sang songs based on known melodies.
Change the topic from science fiction to science, and you end up with songs like Lab Slave, Bad Project, Defining Gravity or The Element Song. Some are recorded in a lab, others are professional productions, but all of these examples are songs by people who like science and sing about it.
Like filk, such science songs are meant to be shared among people who get it. It creates a sense of community to be able to share a song about a thing you know and like with other people who know what you’re singing about. We laugh in recognition because we know what it’s like to work in a lab, or how many long and difficult names are in the periodic table of elements. There’s more about the social aspect of “filking” on Wikipedia, and you can easily see how a lot of the same community ideas apply to these sorts of science songs.
So, if you consider “science songs” to be these literal and factual songs that fit the filk phenotype, then they are indeed often humourous, parodying existing songs, and full of inside jokes and jargon. But there are other songs that allude to science. They aren’t always literal, they might be about people instead of facts, they only vaguely hint at scientific concepts, and they are original compositions rather than parodies.Nevertheless, they are inspired by science, but they aren’t meant to be funny.
A few months ago, The Guardian published a list of some great songs inspired by science. The list includes Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald, The Cure, Josh Ritter, the aforementioned Flaming Lips, and many others. You might have heard some of these songs before, and just never considered that you were listening to a song about science.
So yes, lots of science songs are silly, but maybe that’s because we only consider the silly ones to be “science songs”, and we think of the others as just regular music.
Wellcome Collection event about music
If you’re in London this coming weekend, you should drop by the “Why Music?” events at the Wellcome Collection, organised in collaboration with BBC3. The weekend is packed full with three days of talks, workshops and performances all about how music shapes us.
Some events are ticketed, but there are a lot of drop-in events as well, so even if you don’t have any tickets, there’s a lot to see and listen to. Here are few drop-in events that look particularly interesting, with description by the organisers:
Music as medicine – Saturday September 26, 19:30 – 22:00
“Claudia Hammond discusses music and health with guests including music psychologist Adam Ockelford and vocal coach, performer and educator Mary King. They will be exploring how music can help both physical and mental wellbeing, and looking at health problems encountered by musicians.”
The singing ape – Sunday September 27, 14:00 -18:00
“Tom Service probes the latest theories about the origins of music making and how it might have affected human evolutionary development. Was there music before language? Has music helped shape the human brain? Is music anything more than just ‘auditory cheesecake’? To help answer these and many other questions, Tom is joined by Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, and Steven Mithen, one of the pioneers of cognitive archaeology.”
Music matters: manipulating the mind – Saturday September 26, 13:00 – 14:00
“In a special edition of Music Matters, Tom Service is joined by guests to explore how music can be used to manipulate or control patterns of behaviour. This ranges from music’s use as a tool to subdue or intimidate, and its use in public places to tackle antisocial behaviour or influence consumer activity, to the subconscious role it has in our daily lives. The programme will look at historical and present-day examples and delve into the science behind music’s persuasive effect on the brain.”
Festival of the Spoken Nerd – Full Frontal Nerdity
Last week I finally cleared out my inbox and among lots and lots and lots of mailing lists, ads, and other irrelevant things I found the review copy of Festival of the Spoken Nerd‘s Full Frontal Nerdity, which has been on sale for WEEKS now. Whoops.
I watched it almost immediately after rescuing it from the depths of my inbox, though, and am writing this review soon after, to make up for lost time.
In lieu of a spreadsheet, here is my review in a simple list format. If you want to understand all the references, you’re probably going to have to watch the show yourself.
- Favourite joke in Full Frontal Nerdity: the recurrence of “spreadsheets all the way down”
- Favourite science: the pickle lamp
- Favourite song: The Nerd Anthem
- Favourite audience interaction: group selfie (is a spreadsheet)
- Favourite colour before watching this DVD: purple
- Favourite colour shortly after watching this DVD: magenta
- Favourite toroidal vortex: the giant one
- Favourite feature of the DVD booklet: Photos and tweets from audience members
- Second favourite feature of the DVD booklet, and also a mid-review disclaimer: My name! (I helped a little bit with the “American language translation”, turning “maths” into “math” and “zed” into “zee” for a DVD extra. There are LOTS of names in the booklet, because lots of people helped out with different things.)
- Favourite DVD extra: The Mould Effect
- BONUS: To answer the audience question, the nerdiest thing I have ever done in London is organize a walking tour of DNA helices.
- BONUS: Nerdiest thing that happened while watching this DVD: A glass of chopsticks fell from the book case and I immediately thought it was caused by a toroidal vortex, but actually it was one of my Giant Microbe plushies which had fallen from the shelf above it and knocked over the glass. It fell because I had just bought a new one and the microbe plush toy collection corner was getting too crowded.
If you like nerdy jokes, music, science and spreadsheets, you will love this DVD. If you love all those things but hate DVDs, you can also get a digital download of the show (with or without extras), or a T-shirt that says “NERD” in binary code.
Festival of the Spoken Nerd’s current touring show is Just for Graphs, which has show dates across the UK all autumn. The video below includes clips from Full Frontal Nerdity as teaser for the new show.
The Musisci List
In the music and science survey earlier this year, I asked people to “name a musisci”. More than half of the participants answered this question, and several people gave more than one answer. Some were obvious jokes (Olivia “Newton” John; Obama), others I had to check, and some wrote out their answer as a phrase instead of a name, so it took me a while to fully process. I interpreted “that guy from Queen” as “Brian May”, combined “Girl Talk” and “Gregg Gillis” as one answer, merged all the “Richard Feynman” and “Feynman” answers, split “The Brians May and Cox” into their two respective answers, fixed a few spelling mistakes, and capitalized all names.
I wasn’t able to extract a name out of every answer. I suspect “the guy who invented the Korg” might refer to Bob Moog, but I didn’t count that. I also didn’t know who “my high school biology teacher” referred to, and I even had to discount a mention of the musisci family “Herschel” because I didn’t want to blindly assume it was about William and not his sister Caroline.
Other than the Herschels, the list contains another musical sibling pair (Helen and Kat Arney), one fictional musisci (Sherlock Holmes), and four or five of the names on the list are people who took the survey themselves, but NONE of them listed themselves as musisci example!
There are still some names in this list that not everyone would consider musisci, but I asked this question to see how people would interpret the phrase, and most people used the definition of a scientist who also makes music, or a musician with strong scientific influences.
The full list is below, with the number of times that this person or band was mentioned. I noticed there are far more men than women in the list, with Helen Arney and Vi Hart the only two women that were named four or more times. Björk and Emeli Sandé were probably the most famous women on the list, but not a lot of people are aware of their science connections. Björk has collaborated with scientists on a science-themed album; Sandé has a degree in neuroscience. I don’t think there are that many more men than women who do both music and science, but the ones who are known for this (“The brians May and Cox”, Einstein) are mostly men, and dominated the list.
|Leonardo da Vinci||12|
|Johann Sebastian Bach||9|
|Hermann von Helmholtz||2|
|A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada||1|
|Claire L. Evans||1|
|Joel Thomas Zimmerman||1|
|Johan Gotthardt Olsen||1|
|King Henry 8th||1|
|Loren L. Zachary||1|
|Marcus du Sautoy||1|
|Nicole Frances Galtie||1|
|Robert W Levenson||1|
|The Band 311||1|
Daniel Levitin at BBC Proms
It’s BBC Proms time again! Every summer, the BBC hosts several weeks of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, culminating in the popular Proms in the Park event. Last Friday was the First Night of the Proms, and on Saturday afternoon, I made my way to South Kensington to attend the next thing on the programme: a science lecture.
Neuroscientist (and former music producer) Daniel Levitin has written extensively about music and the brain, and was invited to speak at the Proms about some of the ways the brain processes music.
In his talk, Levitin explained how we can distinguish music from non-musical sounds, and how different parts of the brain detect and process loudness, pitch, duration and timbre of musical notes. He also introduced us to Brodmann Area 47 – a part of the brain that tracks expectations. This area is active when people are trying to predict what comes next in a piece of music. A good piece of music contains some predictable elements, so you have a frame of reference, and will occasionally divert from that.
Last week, Levitin outlined in a Guardian article how, later this Proms season, the Aurora Orchestra would be playing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony without the aid of any sheet music in front of them. In his Proms lecture he also talked about this orchestra’s feat, and summarized the three hooks they use to help them memorize the symphony: auditory memory, motor memory, and ensemble cues. The latter means that not every individual player has to memorize everything. Instead, they use cues from other players to help them remember.
There was plenty of audience participation in the lecture. We sang the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth, completed melodies, guessed songs based on hearing less than a note of it, and learned how we were able to recognize familiar pieces of music even if they were played on unfamiliar instruments – like a table saw.
It was an entertaining lecture to attend, and if you’re quick, you can listen to it yourself: The entire talk was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 that same evening, and is still available online until August 17.
Martha Meets Shakespeare
Way back in December, the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra released “Martha Meets Shakespeare”, the ninth collaboration between musicians around the world performing the music of Doctor Who.
I’m in this video a few times, playing alto recorder in a Tardis dress and playing violin dressed as one of the Carrionites (witches) from the original Martha Meets Shakespeare episode.
We haven’t yet started on the next video, but I’m already very excited about it because it will be music from my favourite season: Season 4, with Donna as companion! Until then, I’m just rewatching all of the old videos, and realized I’d never posted this one.
Cell biology text books and The Beatles
When the third edition of the popular text book Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBOC) came out in 1994, the author photo on the back cover showed the six authors walking across the famous crosswalk near the Abbey Road studios in North-West London. Like many tourists who visit the spot, they imitated The Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover.
“We were crossing Abbey Road, because the place where we work is right around the corner from the Beatles recording studio there”, explained Bruce Alberts in a talk in 2012.
The Abbey Road author photo on the third edition of MBOC started a twenty-year tradition of Beatles album cover parodies on cell biology textbooks by Bruce Alberts and his co-authors. I found most (perhaps even all) of them and put them side by side with the corresponding Beatles album below.
When you move the sliders to compare the author photos to the Beatles albums, you can see that what started as a casual funny photo, simply referencing the location where they wrote the book, eventually turned into elaborate photo shoots to get as close as possible to the album covers.
Crossing Abbey Road, from right (front) to left: Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and James Watson. Martin Raff plays the Paul McCartney part, and crosses barefoot. (Don’t worry: just like McCartney, he’s still alive!)
Three years after this third edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, all of the authors, plus Peter Walter, produced a different textbook: Essential Cell Biology. Having done the Abbey Road thing already, they went for a different Beatles album, and posed in the side-lit style of With The Beatles (released in the US as Meet The Beatles).
A fourth edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell came out in 2002, and by now the authors were dedicated to the cause. This time, Alberts, Lewis, Raff, Roberts and Walter wrote the book together with Alexander Johnson, and their author photo is by far the best one. They went full-out this time for a Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band homage. The celebrity collage in the background of the original was replaced with a collage of famous scientists and some political figures. How many can you recognize?
The second edition of Essential Cell Biology came out in 2003, but I can’t find any information online about an author photo in this edition. There’s nothing shown on the back cover on the Amazon preview.
The next Beatles album cover parody appears on the fifth edition of MBOC, in 2007. This time, the authors get the sketch/photo collage treatment of Revolver.
For the third edition of Essential Cell Biology, Alberts, Bray, Johnson, Lewis, Raff, Roberts and Walter were joined by Karen Hopkin. The eight of them went for a Help-style author photo, and added a little biology joke in there: The authors in the top row spell out G, T, C, A in sempaphore signals – the one-letter codes for the four nucleotides in DNA. The bottom row is the complementary strand: C, A, G, T.
Essential Cell Biology‘s 4th edition came out in 2013, and the same group of eight authors now did their author photo in the style of A Hard Day’s Night. This time they went for accuracy, mimicking most of the expressions of the original cover. A notable exception: Alexander Johnson is not copying George Harrison’s cigarette photo!
Finally, the latest edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell was released in November 2014. Having exhausted the elaborate collages, they went for simplicity, and posed leaning over a balcony, just like the Beatles did on the cover of Please Please Me.
I love the Beatles cover parodies, but the joke is lost on many of the students who use these text books. Larry Moran once said that his undergraduate students didn’t understand the Abbey Road reference on the 3rd edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, and this Reddit thread reveals that the Help parody was not recognizable to students either.
I’m pretty certain I learned about the Beatles in school, but that was way back when Alberts et al. first crossed Abbey Road for their author photo.
Interrailing through Europe with Borodin and Mendeleev
Long ago, in a kingdom that no longer exists, a bohemian traveller was mistaken for a fugitive revolutionary, and arrested.
The traveller was Russian chemist and composer Alexander Borodin, who was on his way to Italy with his friend Dmitri Mendeleev. Both men were researchers in the chemistry department of the University of Heidelberg, where they learned the ropes from Robert Bunsen (inventor of the bunsen burner) and Emil Erlenmeyer (inventor of the erlenmeyer flask). In a few years, Mendeleev would develop his own classic staple of chemistry labs – the periodic table – but now he was taking a break from science, and making his way to Italy with his friend.
They travelled light, and brought very little clothes with them. “We wore only blouses, so that we would look like artists”, Mendeleev has said of this trip. “That’s not a bad idea in Italy, because you can get along very cheaply that way. We took hardly any shirts with us, and had to buy new ones when the need arose; we gave these away to the waiters in place of tips. We absolutely let ourselves go in Italy, after the stifling cloistered life of Heidelberg.”
Picture these two men, dressed in their artists blouses, walking across large parts of Switzerland. Looking nothing like the academics they were in Heidelberg, they reached the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. This kingdom no longer exists. The area is now Northern Italy, but was then part of the Austrian Empire, and Austrian police were on the lookout for a political fugitive.
Seeing a bohemian figure who matched the description of the revolutionary they were told would cross the border that day, the police arrested Borodin.
He was not at all the man they were looking for. Borodin had led a quiet and privileged life, filled with books, music, and education. After graduating from medical school in St Petersburg, he moved to Heidelberg to study chemistry. He spent all of his free time making music, and had already composed several pieces for piano, voice, or string ensembles. Much later, years after his untimely death at a costume party, Borodin would posthumously win a Tony Award for composing the original score used in the musical Kismet. He was a chemist, a musician, a Russian prince’s illegitimate son, a women’s rights activist, and an educator – but not a member of an Italian revolutionary movement.
By the time the police realised their mistake, the real fugitive had taken advantage of the distraction, and crossed the border. When Borodin and Mendeleev finally boarded their train, they were greeted with cheers and applause by the Italian passengers, for unwittingly helping a member of the revolution escape.
We don’t know the identity of the mysterious fugitive, but at the end of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was no more. The region became part of Italy, which it still is. And somewhere along the way, two Russian chemists on a low budget holiday may have played a very minor role in shaping the political situation in 19th century Northern Italy.
Source: the book “Borodin”, by Serge Dianin, translated by Robert Lord (1963). Mendeleev’s words about their outfits are quoted in the book, but originally from another book by M.N. Mladentsev and V.E. Tischenko, called “Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev. His Life and Work, Vol I.” (1938). The photo of Borodin and Mendeleev is a crop from a larger photo including two other chemists – Gitinsky and Olevinsky. The original photo was taken in 1860 – the year this story takes place. Lombardy-Venetia map in the public domain, via Wikimedia.
Off the back of the musisci survey, I also started a newsletter. It only comes out four times per year, but it will be worth it! You can see issue 1 here, and subscribe here (or in the sidebar to the right of this post) to receive future issues.
Issue 1 includes:
-Music and science survey results
-Featured music by musisci: Stornoway
-Links to various interesting and related things online.