Philosophical Musings on Art and Music

2011Symposium_1_2What do humans do? What are we made for? If we look at our educational institutions, we would conclude that we think and reason in words and formulas, create works of art that utilize mathematical relationships and perhaps words, but which express emotions and feelings, figure out how things work through scientific inquiry, and design and build things. These things that humans do roughly correspond to the disciplines of language, philosophy, mathematics, visual and performing arts, science, and engineering. We are reasoning, linguistic, inquiring, and creative beings. While none of these is independent of the others, one pervades all the others; creative thought is necessary for reasoning, communicating, and inquiring. Without creative thought, we fail to initiate inquiry that leads to innovation or improvement, and we struggle to comprehend our well suitedness to our earthly environ; just as our surroundings and indeed ourselves appear to us with color, shape, order, and often impressive beauty, the fruits of our creative activity is similarly crafted with those same attributes.

Visual art presents shapes and color in two and three dimensions that represents or challenges our awareness of our world and ourselves. Music presents sounds that are represented in our minds as shapes and colors in space that cannot be seen but are intimately known thanks to the creative invention of composers and performers of music. Dance is perhaps the perfect art form, combining the visual art of the dancer’s body with the aural art of the music to which the dancer dances. The arts are life imagined and reimagined. At times they give us a vision of what we could aspire to and at other times give us a candid view of what we have settled for, and thus take us at times to a high place of hope and aspiration, and at other times to a low place of regret and shame. Through these honest glimpses of the human spirit, and only through them, we face the certainty of mathematics, the logic of language, and the quest for knowledge of philosophy and science.

Mathematics is never so beautiful to most of us than it is on display in a work of art. Language is never so poignant to Einsteinmost of us than when adorned with melody, and science is never so ennobled as in combined tones forming harmonies and counterpoint that wondrously and miraculously combine to form an acoustic wonder. No less than Albert Einstein summed this up when he said “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.” Einstein’s second wife once explained, “Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.” Late in life, Einstein observed, “I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin.”

It is this joy that is the essence of what we should take away from these remarks. Einstein was not a world-class musician, but nevertheless drew immense satisfaction, joy, and even inspiration form his musical performances. Einstein’s friend Janos Plesch once wrote about Einstein, “There are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling.” Students sometimes wonder why they have a music class because they are not going to be career musicians. Most will not question taking math though they have no plans to be career mathematicians, but the connection to “real life” seems to be more obscure for music. The answer is that most, like Einstein, will derive untold and probably unexpected rewards from performing music as an amateur along side whatever profession or career they choose. Music is immensely stimulating, and even more so when a musical instrument is played. If someone of Einstein’s stature could realize such benefit from being an amateur musician, our students can be sure of exacting a similar benefit, even if they do not become elite physicists.


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