Category Archives: Musicians and Scientists

Why are so many scientists also musicians? This category of posts includes interviews with scientists-musicians. Some were previously posted at a separate blog on


I’ve preloaded the MusiSci blog with a bunch of posts for the coming week. They’re mostly reblogs from elsewhere on Tumblr: I’m getting a lot of mileage out of Tumblr’s new feature where you can search for TWO tags at once to find the science/music overlap.

I also wrote an original post, about earworms, inspired by a song that has been in my head for over a week now. What makes songs sticky, and what are the situations that promote getting earworms? Read my post here. (Also in the sidebar at the moment, but it will be pushed down soon).

Finally, the MusiSci Twitter account modestly passed 200 followers a while ago. I use it fairly regularly for science/music tweets and retweets, and to notify when a new post goes on the Tumblr, so please follow it if you don’t already do so.

Book review: A Matter of Time

In A Matter Of Time: The science of rhythm and the groove, Portland-based music educator John Lamb combines his backgrounds in music, biology, and psychology to explain the science behind concepts we usually take for granted.

It might seem easy to define what a “rhythm” is in terms of time intervals, but in “A Matter of Time” we learn that a rhythm is actually defined largely by how a listener’s brain responds to it. It’s not a rhythm unless someone interprets it as such!

The book is an interesting synthesis of different fields, and shows how music can’t simply be defined in terms of physics, but is a more complex interaction between the music and the listener. Even more complicated to define than rhythm is the concept of groove, which depends on more than hearing alone, and requires a sense of “feeling”, which is largely an individual experience.

The book emphasises the role of the observer in the interpretation of rhythm and the groove, and equally, the book’s medium requires an interaction with the reader: “A Matter of Time” is available as ebook, and makes good use of the format. While it can be read start to finish, it has multiple layers of information in the form of external links to videos that explain concepts in a way that fits the subject matter. Overall, a fun reading experience for an informative book.

Rebel, rebel

My laptop in 2009

In 2009 I participated in NaNoWriMo. The goal: write a 50,000-word novel in a month. I “won” the challenge, which in this context means that I churned out 50,000 words in 30 days, and that it was as near as a coherent novel as you can expect in that time frame.

I had all the time in the world to be doing this in 2009, because it was the year I was underemployed and freelancing, which meant I spent a lot of time in coffee shops and wandering the streets of Toronto. My novel was about young people in their twenties and thirties, who were all various forms of underemployed in arts and science, and who spent a lot of time in coffee shops and wandering the streets of Toronto. Write what you know.

There was also an extensive subplot related to one of the main characters’ band, and various key scenes set at rehearsals in the basement of someone’s house. A year later I read Scott Pilgrim for the first time. Same thing, even set in the same neighbourhood! The exact same record store gets a mention! I can assure you, though, this is just what life in Toronto is really like. I, too, have spent evenings in friends’ basements listening to their band rehearse, and I dropped off a ton of old CDs at that record store before I moved away.

Doing NaNoWriMo in November 2009 was good for me. Therapy for a year of not quite knowing what was next, and forcing me to sit down and work on something systematically, yet creatively. That same month, I flew to the UK twice for job interviews, writing on the plane to reach my word count. I got one of the jobs, and by early December I knew what I would be doing in 2010.

Since then, I have worked a lot. I do not nearly spend as many time in coffee shops as I would like, and I haven’t lazily sat in the corner of a basement listening to a band rehearsal in years. Lately, I don’t even have time to join an orchestra myself. My life has been nothing but science. There’s no balance anymore.

Balance is important. I’ve talked to many people who are both active in music and in science, and most of them mention that it is the combination of the two that gives them the balance they need to perform in each field. These conversations were part of interviews I did to find out why there are so many people doing both music and science. It’s for a “project” that I have recently decided should be a book. I still haven’t *done* anything with it, though, after getting an initial pitch rejected. I took a Gotham Writers Workshop course on how to write a book proposal, and now I know exactly what to do, but I just never sit down and *do* it, because I’m tired and jaded and always on a plane or a train for work travel or at a social event that I have convinced myself I need to show my face at.

What if I had an excuse. Something to force me to write that proposal. Something like NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWrimo’s guidelines clearly state that your 50,000 words should be a novel, and that it needs to be an entirely new project that you started in November. But the pressure of that word limit, and the sense of community you get from thousands of people participating, that is what I need. I couldn’t be the only one…

That’s when I found it, near the bottom of the NaNoWriMo forums: NaNo Rebels. A group of people who are using the NaNoWriMo interface and community for projects that break the official rules: PhD theses, non-fiction books, academic readers – and book proposals.

So as of today, I reactivated my account on NaNoWriMo, and I will try to reach the 50,000 word goal as a NaNo Rebel, with sample chapters and a proposal and notes from previous interviews. I might not make it – I’m not counting on it – but at least I’ll finally sit down and do something, and hopefully feel better about myself.

TEDxAlbertopolis – Evolution of the Lindy Hop

2013-09-23 13.47.31TEDxAlbertopolis at the Royal Albert Hall last month was amazing and overwhelming, so I waited a few weeks until after the event to decide what my favourite talk was. There were a lot of great ones. The talk by Jessica Thom about Tourette’s Syndrome was the most popular both at the event and online, and Sally Davies’ warning about the imminent danger of widespread antibiotic resistance was the most important, but I think my favourite was Ryan Francois’ talk about the Lindy Hop.

Before watching that talk, I didn’t know much about the Lindy Hop beyond the fact that it’s a dance. In just a few minutes, I learned that the history of how the dance spread is amazing, and involves both purposeful training to bring the dance to other countries, as well as the internet. The web didn’t just help to spread the dance, though, but it also stripped it of features that had evolved independently in different countries around the world. Watch the talk, it’s worth it, even if just to see the crazy Swedish interpretation of the dance!

2013-09-23 17.29.00
Stitched panorama of the Royal Albert Hall during TEDxAlbertopolis

Book review – Guitar Zero

I mostly look in the science section of the bookstore when I’m looking for books about music and science, because, from experience, that’s where they usually are. But last month I found Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus, in the music section of Waterstones.

Guitar Zero is the story of Marcus’ sabbatical year, in which he sets out to learn to play guitar. He is a psychology professor at NYU, and he becomes both researcher and subject when he tries to find out whether it’s possible to learn musical skills as an adult and go from guitar zero to guitar hero.

At the start of his journey, he has no musical experience at all, and no sense of rhythm or pitch. In trying to become musical, he takes lessons, reads academic papers, and interviews musicians. The biggest step forward comes when he joins a childrens’ music camp, and learns the joys of playing with a group – even if he’s more than a foot taller than his bandmates. Along the way, he explains why we prefer consonant sounds over dissonant sounds, what the worst song in the world sounds like, the nature of rhythm, and many other musicological topics.

I really enjoyed this book, because “scientists making music” is a theme I’ve been exploring myself, and I recognized two aspects in it that came up several times in interviews I’ve done with “musiscis” like Marcus: a scientific approach to understanding and making music, but also the realization that what makes music fun is much more difficult to describe academically.

Guitar Zero is available on Amazon in various formats, and in either the science or music section of major bookstores.

MusiSci Tumblr

If you’re on Tumblr, consider following the MusiSci tumblr, which I haven’t been promoting very well. It’s a place to put all the things I find about scientists and musicians (or more broadly about science and music) that I don’t get around to writing full-length blog posts on.

Today the Tumblr was all about the fakes: a fake poster (a design assignment) announcing a fictiotious Bill Nye concert (with the BEST line-up), and a photoshopped image that shows Einstein playing a Peavey guitar that wasn’t produced until after his death.

Usually I feature non-fake things on there, though, like this band, or this video, or this repost from This Is What A Scientist Looks Like.

Have a look around, and follow if you like science and music. (And if you don’t, what in the world are you doing HERE?)


Music from space

Get ready to have your mind blown – twice – by your new space hero, Chris Hadfield, who is currently at the International Space Station.

1. He ended up in an amazing Twitter conversation with the actors from Star Trek. Here he is replying to Captain Kirk.
(There’s more)

2. He recorded a cool folk song on the space station, about being in space, and uploaded it to the internet. From space.

I know we’re less than a week in, but this was the coolest thing I’ve seen all year!

Interview with Brian Wecht

Brian Wecht is a theoretical physicist with a degree in jazz composition, as well as one half of the comedy duo Ninja Sex Party. This is a shortened version of a much longer interview, in which he talks about students recognizing him from YouTube, combining an academic day job with comedy in the evenings, and choosing between a PhD in music and science.

It’s not the first time I’ve uploaded a conversation about theoretical physics and jazz composition, but it is the first interview to also mention American flag underwear and a warehouse full of hipsters.

A Ninja Sex Party video for your entertainment. Wear headphones if you’re at work.

Although science and music are separate parts of Brian’s life, he combines science with the stage in his capacity as co-founder of The Story Collider, where people tell stories about science. We didn’t talk about that in the interview, but it’s awesome and you should check it out.

Tweets about Brian May’s science background

The main cause of my writer’s block and general low self-esteem when it comes to writing about people-who-are-both-scientists-and-musicians is that I don’t have as many facts as my inner scientist would like. For example, my original inspiration came from seeing how people react to finding out that certain scientists are musicians, or that certain musicians are scientists. They’re always surprised, even though I keep seeing these tidbits all over the place and I can’t even begin to count how many people I know by that description. But how do you capture surprise? I felt that I needed something tangible to point to, to say “see, this is how people react”, rather than expecting people to just believe me.

Thanks to the Olympics closing ceremony, I now have some evidence. At one point during the weird, hours-long ceremony, Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May took the stage. The day after the ceremony aired, I compiled a storify of most of the tweets I could find that referred to Brian May and some keywords like “scientist”, “physicist”, “astrophysics”.

Below are over three hundred tweets of people being excited enough about Brian May’s science background that they thought it was worthy of a tweet. Among them are some scientists who are being smug about “one of us” being on stage, but also teens whose dad just told them about Brian May, and people who knew it already but wanted to tell others.

I collected these tweets because I need to see them once in a while, to be reminded that people really do find this kind of thing interesting.

Continue reading