skepticAlbert Einstein, so I have been given to understand, was a fairly good amateur violinist – not a Yitzhak Perlman, but pretty competent, considering that his day-job was being one of the approximately half-dozen or so greatest physicists who ever lived.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I have also read, in biographies of Einstein, that he was also something of a “musical Platonist”. He entertained a great admiration for Mozart, believing, as he once famously said – though I have been unable to track down exactly where he said it — Mozart is the greatest composer of all. Beethoven created his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it – that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed. (Einstein’s tendency toward Platonism might also account for why Einstein, during his years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, became close friends with Kurt Goedel – he of the famous Goedel Incompleteness Theorem – who was an explicit, unapologetic, and avowed Platonist Of course, Einstein may have been speaking figuratively about Mozart. Be that as it may, however, Einstein was certainly a realist, in the sense that he believed the equations of physics described an extra-conscious reality as it actually is, independent of the observer, and that the “observer-centric” tendencies of quantum theory – think, e.g., “Schroedinger’s Cat” here – are symptoms, not of the triumph of quantum theory, but on the contrary, of its incompleteness. In some way, Einstein believed that Mozart’s music points (figuratively or literally) to extra-musical realities and that quantum theory points (literally) to extra-conscious realities. In Einstein’s view, neither music nor math is purely and solipsistically self-referential: each point to something – to some thing – beyond itself.


Whether he was consciously aware of it or not, Einstein was onto something. I mean something other than the relativity of frames of reference, the constancy of the speed of light, the malleability of space and time, the ambiguity of simultaneous events, the equivalence of matter and energy, the equivalence of acceleration and gravity, time dilation, and the expansion of the Universe. Even by itself and on its own terms, this would have been a fair day’s work. But beyond even this, both Einstein and the early architects of quantum theory – Heisenberg, Bohr, DeBroglie, et al. – were touching the trailing hem of a profound insight: music is the fundamental constituent of reality. Not only aesthetically, but physically. In terms of its deepest structures, the Universe is made of music. That includes you and me: human beings … though what this latter means is deeply problematical.

McCoy Tyner

When I say “the Universe is made of music”, you have to think of music, not (only) in the sense of what you would hear from Stan Getz or McCoy Tyner in a jazz club, or what you would hear from a performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in F-Major, or what you would hear when the Tallis Scholars perform Antonio Allegri’s great Miserere or Palestrina’s Mass for Pope Marcellus, but music in the most “cosmic” sense … which includes all these discrete instances but infinitely more besides. An analogy: an apple falling from a tree is an instance of Newton’s laws of motion, but so is the motion of two neutron stars orbiting each other at the far end of the Milky Way Galaxy or of a wisp of hydrogen gas in its death-spiral path into the black hole at the center. And all these discrete examples exemplify the geometry of spacetime in Einstein’s general theory of relativity (as long as we steer well clear of singularities).


In all such cases, music is a wave phenomenon – in this broadest possible sense. The waves may be oscillating compression-rarefaction waves in the air, as with Stan Getz riffing on “No Greater Love”, or in the water, as a whale communicating with other members of its pod. But music is also made by electrons creating synchrotron radiation in the form of electromagnetic waves – in no medium at all — as they spiral around intense magnetic fields in interstellar space. Or by “probability waves” described by the Schroedinger wave equation’s projection of the evolving likelihood of locating a particle at a given point in spacetime. Or a multi-modal distribution – basically, a series of Gaussian bell-shaped curves concatenated with each other – describing certain random processes. Or the sinusoidal path traced out in the Mercator projection of a spacecraft as it orbits the earth. Or the action of thousands of American football fans doing “The Wave” in a stadium as they watch a game. I mean the following in the most pristinely literal sense: the entire Universe is a Great Fugue of trillions, quadrillions … it may well  turn out to be infinitely many … obligato voices.

Even conventional physics pivots on the centrality of wave phenomena … in other words, of physical phenomena as forms of music.  The probability of finding a particle at a given point  in spacetime is the square of the amplitude of the particle’s wave at that point, and if light — electromagnetic waves — did not Doppler-shift down to the red end of the spectrum or up toward the blue end, astronomers would have no means of measuring motion and velocity of distant objects.  But beyond conventional physics, the music of the Universe extends toward superstring theory, for better or for worse one of the cutting edges of current research.  I say “for better or for worse”, because, even after roughly 40 years of theorizing, superstring theory, in none of its literally hundreds of forms, has suggested a single definitive and performable experiment or prediction. So superstring theory may be dead wrong, devoid of physical significance, and may be no more, and also  no less, than especially elegant mathematics. But the music of it is sublime:  an indefinitely large — quite possibly infinite — number of discrete strings vibrating in 11 dimensions, with each mode of vibration corresponding to a physical aspect of the resulting subatomic particle, in what is essentially identical, in 10 dimensions of space and 1 of time, to the way a violin string vibrates to produce a single, determinate note, say C#, as in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2. One set of vibrations makes a proton; another, a meson; another, an electron; etc., etc. So an atom becomes a movement; a molecule, a symphony; a  complete organism, the entire oeuvre of Nature’s composing.  There need be no God, but if there is a God (S)He is, first and foremost, a musician of the most sublime order. And even if superstring theory turns out to be discarded, it is very telling that, after 2500 years or so, humans’ attempts to understand Nature have come full circle, spiraling up one level to return to where those attempts first started, like the music in Bach’s great Musical Offering.

Gafurius’s “Practica Musice”, 1496

For, you see, it all started with music.  Long ago.  The Pythagoreans of the middle first millennium BCE were fascinated by musical harmony, ultimately making it, not only a theory of musical scales and harmonics, but of the very Universe itself.  The Pythagoreans’ philosophy of music is far too complex and nuanced to even summarize briefly.  Suffice to say that, for the Pythagoreans, while mathematics was prior — being the means by which the Good established the Cosmos — there was an intimate relationship between mathematics and music, to the point that the two were inseparable.  So, not surprisingly, the Pythagoreans saw the Universe as being divided into an enormous number of planes of Reality, each such plane defined by a particular species of musical harmony, and ascending upward by octaves to the Highest Good.  This elegant vision of Reality found its most well known and explicit expression in the philosophy of Forms, originated by Plato who studied for a time under Pythagoras.  Despite the eventual ascendancy, thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, of Aristotle’s philosophy, this Platonic / neo-Platonic idealism persisted well into medieval times, where it was elaborated into the concept of the musica mundana, literally “the music of the world”, and in esoteric Christianity, the musica humana (the music of the human body) and musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis (music in the conventional / literal sense made by the human voice and musical instruments … like Einstein playing his violin and McCoy Tyner playing his piano). For esoteric medieval Christian mystics, all three forms of music constituted a continuum beginning with literal music made by human beings up through the various celestial spheres and even to God, the Master Musician, Who, having composed the Great Symphony, proceeded to conduct it eternally. Pythagorean / Platonic / neo-Platonic mystics going all the way back to the Pythagoreans believed that only people of a sublime degree of refined discernment and a whole lifetime of study of the mathematics of harmony could actually hear the musica mundana.  In fact, the Pythagoreans themselves believed that only Pythagoras himself could actually hear what later came to be called the “music of the spheres”.  But the rest of us lesser mortals could benefit from the musical harmonies we could hear.

That belief begs a final question, to which I do not have, nor do I believe anyone else has, an answer:  so much for music … what of the listener?  Or to put it another way the Pythagoreans would equally have accepted:  so much for mathematics … what of the mathematician? Is human consciousness itself a form of music, a wave phenomenon? In other words, who is listening? If everything we observe around us is a wave phenomenon — also known as “music” — then what is it in the act of listening that is doing the listening; in the act of observing that is doing the observing; in the act of waving that is doing the waving? When we consider the human consciousness of the listener, does the Universe become self-referential, folding in on itself like a Klein bottle, so that, in the end, there is only Pure Listening in which the act of composing, the act of playing, and the act of listening all become likewise indistinguishable and in which all distinctions like composing, playing, and listening are rendered meaningless?

The Dry Salvages — off Cape Ann, MA

Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

— T. S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

© 2015, essay/the skeptic and bottom photo, James R. Cowles; photo of posthumous painting (1819) of Mozart by Barbara Krafft, public domain; sheet music, public domain.

4 thoughts on “Music as Self and World

  1. I really, really like this piece, and if it’s okay, I would love to share it on my Facebook page. I think the rest of the world needs to be exposed to this! I love physics, quantum theories and the like, but the math part of it just kills me. My brain isn’t big enough to grasp the intricacies needed for the equations. However, I am fascinated by particle physics (I literally cheered when they found Higgs-Boson) and string theory (theories), etc. I do believe that everything in the universe has its own vibration(s). Perhaps it accounts for attraction/repelling among universal bodies (including ours), too? Find the right “vibration” of something or someone and you have discovered their “true name”, so to speak. 🙂 Anyway, this was marvelous! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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