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Music and chemistry—what’s the connection?

by Christina Bodurow, District II Director, ACS Board of Directors
September 9, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 36

 

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Credit: Courtesy of Christina Bodurow

Do you play a musical instrument? Are you a chemist? Is there a connection between the essential skills that enable an individual to excel at one or the other? Peter Banks, formerly a chemistry teacher at the world-renowned Purcell School for Young Musicians in the U.K., recently posed these questions to the ACS Indiana Section.

Some academics are exploring the intersection between music and science. For example, Mahadev Kumbar of Nassau Community College has developed tutorials demonstrating how various chemical processes can be shown to have musical aspects. John Berry of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, uses concepts of chemical synthesis to compose music. And Steve Everett of the University of Illinois, Chicago, composed a musical score to elaborate on the chemistry of the start of life on Earth.

Several chemists became not only musicians but also composers and conductors. These include Alexander Borodin, Edward Elgar, George Berg, and Lejaren Hiller Jr.

Banks’s observations bolster the connection between music and chemistry. Over the course of his teaching, he began to recognize certain skills that his music students at the Purcell School were applying to their study of chemistry. In parallel, Banks recognized that many who train as chemists are also musicians.

What could this mean for the connection between music and chemistry? Banks believes there are a handful of skill sets that become embedded capabilities that are critical to success in both disciplines.

What are some of the most important abilities for a musician to master?

Many chemical concepts are deeply rooted in patterns, such as the periodic table of the elements.

The first is pattern recognition. The majority of musical composition is built on a variety of patterns, from simple (such as a scale) to complex. Musicians build their skills through their ability to recognize, repeat, and perfect playing these patterns.

The second is fine motor skills. Think about many instruments: piano, violin (or any string instrument), woodwinds, even percussion. A musician’s ability to control even the most minute stroke of a key, string, or valve comes to define the artistic excellence of a musician.

The third is timing. Musicians are exquisitely in tune with timing of notes and rhythms, not only their own but of the entire ensemble around them. Ever watch the violin section of an orchestra during a concert? The bowing of each individual in the section is perfectly synchronized with the whole.

The final, and potentially most critical, skill for all musicians is learning from mistakes. From the very beginning of every musician’s career, the learning process will involve making mistakes, then practice, and more practice to truly learn the music to perfection.

It is intriguing to think about the transferability of these key music skills to chemistry. Many chemical concepts are deeply rooted in patterns, such as the periodic table of the elements. What about the skills chemists need to learn to work in the lab? Are these not fine motor skills? As one does experimentation, there is always the critical element of understanding the timing of research, both as one adds reagents to an experiment and works toward a research goal. And finally, the very definition of the scientific method requires practitioners to be able to learn from their mistakes. Many chemists have experienced the greatest feeling of fulfillment by finally, after many failed experiments, learning the precise requirements to solve a problem or make a reaction work.

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These similarities lead one to hypothesize that at least some of the links between music and chemistry could lie in skill sets common to the two disciplines. In fact, there may be other skills, such as creativity and being able to deal with multidimensional complexity, that create further connections.

The next question that emerges is how to take advantage of this linkage.

For many chemists and scientists, music provides a welcome outlet for socialization or extracurricular activities. However, what if we began to think about music as a skill development tool for chemists? How many chemists studied music, perhaps even before they were aware that they had interests or talents in chemistry? How many continued to pursue musical avocations? Might those musical avenues help continue to advance the transferable skills outlined above? Do they help develop even better chemists?

The comments in this article are intended to solicit thoughts and to test broader interest in the topic. We would like to start a discussion within ACS to determine the level of recognition and interest and to see whether there are opportunities to use the link between music and chemistry for the betterment of ACS and chemists at all stages of their careers. Please send your thoughts and comments to Christina Bodurow at c_bodurow@acs.org or Peter Banks at peter@peterbanks.info.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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