Discovery and Experimentation

I thought it odd that in their times, both Beethoven and Bach referred to their recent accomplishments in the “science of music.” As Christoph Wolff explains in J.S. Bach: The Learned Musician, “Bach was surely influenced by the climate of inquiry and search for truth that defined philosophy as ‘the science of all things that teaches us how and why they are or can be.’” The “why” and “can be” strike me as highly suggestive. Doesn’t this describe the goal of every serious artist and scientist: to discover principles that work – subject to experimentation – and open new worlds? The player first encountering the inner parts of a late Beethoven quartet is amazed that such wild lines and harmonies not only work—they are beautiful. Imagine how Beethoven felt when he “discovered” them, and realized how music, even then, “can be.” The full implications are usually not immediately apparent. When asked his opinion on a new work of music, Stravinsky said, “It is too early to tell”; and in regard to the scientific analysis of simple cases, Karl Popper said, “Basic models tell us more than we can at first know.”

The “Past”

Composers and scientists are burdened differently by the past. Schumann spent hours analyzing Schubert, especially the E-Flat Piano Trio. Wagner wrote on how to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth. Schumann advised aspiring composers to let Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier “be your daily bread—there is no end of learning.” Scientists, in contrast, tend to regard anything done more than three weeks ago as “ancient history.” We rise each morning to refashion the world. Might artists show scientists how the past can be an inspiration; do we ignore that at our peril?


I am skeptical that some “ability” in one of these areas (e.g. playing the violin) correlates with an “ability” in another (e.g. being a scientist). What is required is obsession. And who has time for three or even two obsessions? Yes, scientists burn the midnight oil, but so do musicians. Coltrane practiced all day, every day; even between sets he practiced. Birgit Nilsson stuck her head out of the porthole on her way from London to New York to practice unheard. And Heifetz was overheard practicing a single shift for an hour before a concert. For most of us, obsession is a matter of desire and the ability to arrange our lives to give in to it.


Standards of proficiency for players have risen dramatically in recent years, probably much more so than for scientists. Making a living is easier for a scientist than for a musician today. The typical non-musician does not appreciate how highly accomplished is the average member of a major symphony orchestra. I love a remark attributed to the painter Matisse: “I practiced the violin until I had become technically acceptable, by which point I had lost all ability to be expressive.” Today, it is unlikely that he would be considered “technically acceptable.”


I would have a hard time explaining why I practice the violin for hours a day. So did the painter Jean Louis David, by the way, and the comedian Jack Benny (as did the monster Heydrich). I am now used to ordinary scientific struggles, long periods when nothing seems to happen punctuated intermittently by the relief of coherent answers. But I never fail to be amazed at the more frequent epiphanies that come from serious violin practice. I do exercises and suddenly, mysteriously, I can do something I couldn’t do three weeks ago. For me, each time, it is like a religious experience, a gift.

Today I was practicing, deeply “concentrating,” when suddenly I had a scientific idea. I put down my violin and emailed my lab. Never mind if the idea was any good. Linus Pauling was asked how he managed to have so many good ideas, and he replied that it was easy—he had many ideas, and maybe one in a hundred was worth something. So it’s important to have two goals: Put yourself in a state conducive to having ideas and then try to figure out if any of them are any good.


I once asked a professional violinist/musician (who I much admire) whether he watched television as he practiced, and he quickly said, “Never!” His wife, who was also at the table, said, “Always!” Brain people claim that even though you might think you are paying attention to two things at once, you are actually switching your attention, rapidly, from one to the other. So maybe you only concentrate on the music half the time—big deal. But perhaps the best way to nurture your obsession with the violin is to move to England or Pakistan and practice while watching a cricket match. Significant events will occur only rarely; you won’t understand them even if you notice; and it will go on all day.