A History of the Intersection between Music and Science

Eric Bianchi, PhD, is an associate professor of music history at Fordham University. His main area of study is the intersection of music and science, mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to Bianchi, music in the 17th century was considered to be a type of math, instead of art. While this connection between music and the sciences is thousands of years old, in Western history the idea has its roots in the teachings of Pythagoras. Pythagoras and his followers were some of the first discoverers of the basics of music theory. Specifically, they discovered that it was possible to make musical intervals using the sounds that were produced by plucking on a string. The beauty they found in these intervals, however, were not just in their sound but also in their mathematical precision. For example, for every octave there is a perfect two-to-one frequency ratio. Thus, throughout most of human history, educated people have generally thought that the study of music fell under the umbrella of the sciences as opposed to in today’s world where it most often is considered to be a type of art.

Bianchi is currently working on a monograph about music and alchemy in the 17th century that will eventually become part of a line of experimental online digital editions of scholarly work. His primary source for this research is an alchemy book written in the 17th century that is composed of a various illustrations, accompanied by German and Latin poems and musical canons for three voices. What fascinates Bianchi about this source is how it includes music in a book about alchemy, a chemical subject. He finds that the answer to why this occurred requires an in-depth study of 17th century thought.

Today, we do not typically think of chemists as incorporating musical composition into their work. But there is evidence this idea was more common a few hundred years ago. At that time, the fields of alchemy and chemistry had not yet separated. It was widely believed that the kinds of processes that worked in music were ultimately rooted in the structure of the universe and therefore could be applied to the same kinds of processes that compose physical and chemical change. For example, if a 17th century alchemist were trying to turn lead into gold, he might consider it appropriate in his experimenting to use the musical composition of a canon as an analogy for the chemical processes used in alchemy.

Throughout the 17th century, however, ideas about music and science began to change. Following Galileo’s discovery about planetary revolution, people began to question the way they thought about science in general. The bigger argument, in a certain sense, was whether one could describe the natural world through theology or through mathematics. Thus, as people started changing their ideas about the natural world and the principles that govern it, they also began to rethink their ideas about art. The idea began to evolve that perhaps art is not governed by the same proportions that govern astronomy, but that instead taste may play a more prominent role.

It is important to note that this transition of thought happened slowly, and may still be happening today. Bianchi points out that the intersection of music and science is still very much alive today in the modern music industry. The fact that it is possible to listen to something online means that someone has found a way to turn sound into binary code information. Furthermore, music copyright today has been increasingly represented by color spectrums. While the idea of music as a form of poetic art and creativity has gained the upper hand in today’s culture, the idea of music being some sort of equation is still around today, particularly in the world of music production.

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