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September 1, 2013


Physicist & violinist Albert Einstein's cosmic orchestra resonates with the music of the spheres

Time, motion, and distance all figure prominently in a musician's toolbox, and string players have the added complexity of distributing the bow properly. Every measure of music offers a new challenge, and no two string players do it exactly the same way. While biology and chemistry can occasionally be used to create a useful analogy for music, the applications of physics to music know no limits.

When Albert Einstein, the most famous physicist of the 20th century, said that music helped him discover the theory of relativity, forever altering the fields of physics and astronomy, he not only persuaded parents that music education was essential to the proper intellectual growth of their children, he laid down one of the central enigmas concerning the relationship between math, science, and music. That Einstein was not only a musician, but also a violinist makes me wonder what it is about the violin and music that helped to inspire his theory.

It's impossible to know his perceptions about music because he had no compulsion to explain them. While I can imagine there was nothing ordinary about his relationship with music, given the richness and flexibility of his mind, it's hard to know which particulars of music resonated with him. We have one hint, though: a conversation with the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (more on that later).


My initial conscious encounter with the relativity factor that affected my musical perceptions came when I was 25. It was during my first rehearsal with the Colorado Symphony as principal second violin. I couldn't explain it at the time, but I noticed that everyone around me had a unique way of interpreting the beat and the sound of the music swirling around us. It was quite disconcerting, and it left me confused and dealing with overwhelming sensory messages. Yet the orchestra sounded excellent and the audience would generally hear a flawless performance. It showed me that the difference between a musician's perception onstage and that of the audience is like night and day.

I bring this up because the issue of relativity, that one thing is relative to another, can be used in music to point a string player in the direction of greater, more precise results. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it."

Since Einstein used philosophy and thought experiments to stimulate his mind, it would be appropriate here to juxtapose musical and relativity matters, in the backand-forth style of a see-saw. For me, this brings up the question of how the mind juggles the "mixed messages" that come its way in the realm of the orchestra. I'll leave the numerous issues that affect string playing and music itself for another time.


When Einstein formulated his views that would refute Newton's law that "absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably, without relation to anything external," he experimented with the idea of relative motion. An example from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Einstein, by Gary F. Moring, explains: "You're standing at the rear of the ship and throw a ball towards the front of the ship at 60 mph. The ship is traveling north at 20 mph. Relative to the ground, the ball's speed is 80 mph. Relative to the ship, the ball's speed is 60 mph. You look up and see a small plane flying at a speed of 80 mph in the same direction the ship is going. Relative to the plane, the ball has zero speed-it's not moving."


I was nine years old when I first heard a conductor admonish the orchestral musicians for rushing when we were making a crescendo and slowing down when we got softer. I was 35 when I heard conductor Erich Lemsdorf tell us that we should not be members in good standing of the Ritardando Club whenever we made a ritard at the end of a phrase. Simon Rattle finally met an orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, that had such an amazing sense of time that they could follow him through any organic twists and turns. He expressed his joy by saying that he experienced a sense of vertigo, the good kind that happens when all the musical peaks, valleys, undulations, and emotions are realized.

The uniqueness of Rattle's and the BPO's experience cannot be overstated. The usual experience between the musicians, the conductor, and the music itself is a stimulating, if often frustrating, ride. While the obvious goal is to be in sync with your fellow musicians and the conductor, it is often the case that the orchestra seems to be doing one thing while the conductor is doing another.


Experience teaches us that problems get ironed out in rehearsal, that listening to the general direction of the music and watching the conductor paint a vivid enough picture to know what the music is doing at all times. However, experience also teaches us that every musician has his or her own sense of rhythm, pitch, and sound, and every conductor decides what detail he considers important enough to focus on, which can derail a musician's own perception.

For example, a concertmaster plays a solo that depends on a certain amount of momentum to fulfill the emotional and harmonic sense of the music, and then the conductor points out that the soloist is getting ahead of the viola section that's supposed to be accompanying him, but is, in fact, getting slower. The relativity of who should follow whom describes the juggling act that happens every moment in a fully alive symphony orchestra.


What can a conductor do to alleviate the everyday confusion that music, by its very nature, creates? By concentrating on the music itself, with its subtle hierarchy of emotion, harmony, phrasing, and technical foundations, the musicians themselves will fill in the rest. Composer Arnold Schoenberg laid out his own thought experiment as he explained the connection between technique and music in his 1911 essay "Problems in Teaching Art."

He asks: "Is technique a cause or an effect, a by-product? Expressive content wishes to make itself understood; its upheaval produces a form. . . . There are two obvious equations: 'Similar treatment of material must achieve similar effects,' and 'If one produces similar effects, one must have similar feelings.' We are dealing with three unknown quantities, so a third equation is still to come. This one, however, is: 'Similar feelings express themselves through dissimilar treatment of material.' The facts of art prove this, and not the opposite, though people would like them to. So the third equation, instead of producing the solution, upsets the first two."

Schoenberg recognized the inherent power of creative thinking that forms its own technique to reach its goal. Conductors have the power to frame the music in such a way that its shape and emotion are obvious. Musicians have the tools to realize the music's intent as shown by the conductor. Conductors also have the human ability to confuse the musicians, and vice-versa.

The musicians in the orchestra have their own source of energy that will either complement or work at odds with the conductor. How the musicians play with each other becomes evident in the sound and performance that they present to the conductor. Its own technical/musical identity, emanating from its sheer, unadulterated abilities, presents an extra, complex ingredient to the stew that is created by 105 musicians and a leader.


In 1930, Einstein had several conversations with Rubindranath Tagore about music, modern physics, and the nature of reality. These excerpts make us appreciate the depth of Einstein's musical thoughts, and help us enter his world of relativity as it may apply to music.

He asks Tagore about Indian songs that have no words:

Tagore: "The music is very intricate and subtle and is a complete world of melody by itself."

Einstein: "Is it not polyphonic?"

Tagore: "Instruments are used, not for harmony, but for keeping time and adding to the volume and depth. Has melody suffered in your music by the imposition of harmony?"

Einstein: "Sometimes it does suffer very much. Sometimes the harmony swallows up the melody altogether."

Tagore: "Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet, color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value."

Einstein: "It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your melody is much richer in structure than ours."

Einstein's science still baffles most of us, but at least he succeeded in laying it out in every detail. However, his perceptions about music are all the more mysterious, because it wasn't his job to explain it. Trying to understand how relativity affects us as musicians helps us intersect his world.

Experience teaches us that every musician has his or her own sense of rhythm, pitch, and sound, and every conductor decides what detail he considers important enough to focus on, which can derail a musician's own perception.

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