Posts Tagged ‘Music’

Beethoven’s ninth: My first: A scientific analogy

September 28, 2013
The Royal Albert Hall

The Royal Albert Hall

Some years ago we made a family list of ‘things to do before the children grow up’.  This evening we headed off to the Royal Albert Hall to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. And when we got home we ticked  ‘Attend a classical music concert’ off our list.

I was familiar with the work because my elder brother had a record of it and I had listened to it several times as a teenager. But watching it being performed was enormously more pleasurable in a way I find I hard to describe.

One feature of ‘attending a classical music concert’ is that for a brief while, you can’t do anything else. It thus creates a meditative arena within which one’s thoughts and anxieties flow and ebb with the music. And in this meditative state I reflected on the fact that what I heard was an orchestra, and not the sound of individual instruments.

Each of those musicians would probably have studied their instrument for at least 10 years – and probably twice that. Each one by themselves would probably be the best player of that instrument I had ever encountered! And yet the result of their virtuosity was not that we could hear them individually. Instead, we got to hear their collective creation – the sound of an orchestra.

And as I wondered how that must feel, I reflected that the situation was in some respects like a large scientific project. Highly-trained scientists add their skills and expertise together but while the overall work benefits from the attention to detail of each contributor, the individual components should not distract from the overall result.

For example, thousands of scientists are involved in work at CERN (at least 3000!) and every year hundreds of PhD students complete theses studying the behaviour of components of the experiments conducted there. But in the big performances – the particle discoveries for example – their work contributes only as a harmonious overtone to the overall result. And the ‘conductor’ and the principal ‘violin’ get to bathe in the fame and glory.

And I reflected that I particularly appreciated the self-effacement involved in both these activities – creating music and creating science. The musicians and scientists will generally not find great fame or wealth. But they do get to earn a living doing something they love. And then occasionally, they get to take part in something really big and grand and inspiring.

Music and Maths: Inclusion and Exclusion

February 26, 2013
Music and Maths. If you understand the symbols you're in. If you don't, you're out. How does that make you feel?

Music and Maths. If you understand the symbols you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out. How does that make you feel?

I love music. I listen to music a lot and I love discovering new artists, styles and sounds. I also play the guitar – and in a Dylanesque sort of way – I am pretty good.

But I always feel inadequate about music – excluded from ever really being a real musician. And the seeds of my sense of exclusion were sowed early in my life.

I remember being told by Mrs. Hughes, the teacher in ‘Junior 3’ (the modern Year 5) that my voice was flat and I couldn’t sing in the choir for another teachers wedding. I was devastated – and I didn’t even know what ‘flat’ meant!

At secondary school – my sense of exclusion from ‘proper music’ was cemented by lessons teaching rules and nomenclature that made no sense to me at all. Even while I was teaching myself the guitar and teaching myself counterpoint and harmony at home – I was always a dummkopf in music at school.

And as as adult, trying to learn piano, my teacher would persistently use terms such ‘dominant’ (The fifth degree of the major or minor scale. Also, the term for the triad built on the fifth degree, labelled V in harmonic analysis.: is that clear?) or tell me that some tune was “2:2 not 4:4”  or alternatively that it didn’t matter and could be either. And then there were all the weird symbols on the page!

In the many years of trying to learn music formally, I can recall only three positive comments to balance the innumerable criticisms of my lack of understanding and dedication. And that’s not even to mention all the ‘class’ associations. All in all, I just gave in. And I continue to give in.

But my experience of interacting with music professionals makes me reflect on the experiences of the many adults I meet at Protons for Breakfast who feel excluded from Science. Despite the fact that their taxes pay for pretty much all the science that goes on in the UK, they feel somehow unable to get grips with science on their terms.

Many people who had mediocre or bad experiences with science at school – lessons using incomprehensible terms – find that after school there has been no opportunity to engage with something which seems now to be profoundly interesting. Such as the structure of the matter from which they are composed! Or the fate of the Universe! And no matter how much they study or read – they still feel excluded.

And one big part of that is the ‘symbols on the page’ – the maths. And even if the maths expresses something obvious or simple – the act of using maths at all is enough to convince people that this ‘explanation’ is not for them.

We are just about to begin the seventeenth presentation of Protons for Breakfast, and knackered as I am, I am looking forward to it. Because that sense of alienation is like a poison, and I hate it. This class doesn’t solve any major problems in the world, but the feedback tells us that people really do notice that even though they still feel reticent, they have noticed that this class is different. That we are delighted to welcome absolutely  everyone, and most especially the people who feel like dummkopfs. My brothers and sisters

Radioactivity the Musical

August 16, 2011
Screenshot from an application which turns radioactive decay into music.

Screenshot from an application which turns radioactive decay into music.

With the exception certain inspired individuals, radioactivity is rarely considered a subject for home experimentation. But my colleague Clare Lee just sent me a delightful link to a Flash application which turns radioactive decay into music. One selects up to 5 radioactive elements and the application turns their decays into music by scaling the energy of the gamma radiation to a musical tone.

Here is the ‘sound of’ Bromine-76 Tin-118 Bismuth-201 and a couple of other elements I forgot to make note of.

Now the music is – to my ears – delightfully non-repetitive, but what I like most about this application is its openness. It shows ALL the radioactive isotopes and immediately makes it clear that there is a world of these isotopes out there. And it shows information that most people won’t look at, but which you can look at if you want to. The application allows people to engage with a complex and frightening topic in an accessible and engaging way.

P.S. The music will drive you nuts after a while – about 10 minutes in my case 🙂


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