Shake the Dressing!

In the September 10th issue of ACS News, Dr. Christina Bodurow, wrote a column on the connection between music and chemistry. She pointed out that a few composers, like Borodin, have been chemists and that the two disciplines have a number of skills in common: pattern recognition; fine motor skills; timing; and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes.

Dr. Bodurow’s piece was shared with me by chemist and fellow musician, Dr. Mark R. Antonio, Senior Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. I am not a scientist, except in the broadest humanistic terminology that understands scientia as the Latin equivalent of the Greek episteme. I am a musicologist, a philologist, a conductor, and professor of music at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois.

By coincidence (if such a thing exists; C. G. Jung says it doesn’t), Dr. Antonio had recently spoken to me about an article he was writing discussing certain processes and interfaces. When I asked what he meant by “interface,” he suggested I think of the place where oil and vinegar meet in an Italian salad dressing. Later, while reading Dr. Bodurow’s article, I began to think that perhaps we might better describe the relationship between music and chemistry as an interface than as a connection or linkage.

I forwarded Dr. Bodurow’s piece to two other friends who are musicians and scientists. Dr. Christ Condeiu, professor of chemistry at Lewis University, wrote to me: “I think music and chemistry are art, and one of the differences between them is that music has the immediate rewarding feeling when you listen to it, whereas chemistry involves a lot of struggles and pains to develop a drug that cures a disease, for example. However, music involves equally painful phases of composition or years of practice on an instrument, which makes music and chemistry similar in efforts and rewards.”

Dr. Dean Ballotti, who teaches science education at Purdue University, responded this way: “For me the connection between music and chemistry, and physics as well, is vibration.  Obviously, music is about vibration but atoms and molecules vibrate too and in complex ways.  In fact, complex molecules probably have very complex vibrational patterns (a type of pattern recognition?) possibly similar, in type, to the sonic output of an orchestra.  That is what string theory was about.  That at the absolute foundation of matter was a unique vibration for each particle.  There is something called natural resonance, which happens when two objects that are independently vibrating come into proximity to each other.  If their frequencies are close to each other the amplitude of the vibration greatly increases.”

All this talk of vibration makes me think of frequency, i.e., pitch. Early writers on the “music of the spheres” seem to have been thinking of frequency, assuming that anything so large moving so fast must make a lot of noise, but I think of it more in terms of rhythm.[1] When I teach an introductory music course I always ask students for examples of rhythm outside the confines of music. Sports analogies frequently come up: the pitcher (quarterback, shooting guard, golfer, horse, etc.) just never got into his rhythm. But I usually have to tease out the analogy with the most obvious rhythmic phenomena in the cosmos to get them to mention the revolution and orbit of the planets. Perhaps I need to ask them to consider protons and electrons as well.

Band directors have a saying that I bring up from time to time in my orchestra rehearsals: “The right note at the wrong time is a wrong note.” This makes me think of Dr. Bodurow’s comment about the crucial role timing plays in music and chemistry. Philosopher Hannah Arendt claims in The Life of the Mind that we cannot comprehend or explain the passing of time without spatial images.[2] I might argue that if anyone can, it is the musician. Long before the click-tracks of the digital age, we measured time in proportional notation, organized recurring patterns into meters, and specified the tempo at which these should proceed through time.

Music historians know that pitch-specific musical notation was in place long before a comprehensive system of rhythmic notation. We had the staff and the notes, which are just points on a graph,[3] long before we had developed the complex rhythmic notation necessary to write down a polyphonic motet in such a way that singers and instrumentalists could reproduce the sound called for by the signs.[4] Just as the notation is not the music but the map, so chemical equations are not chemical reactions. Both are mere symbols that permit us to perform an operation again and again.

So how can we exploit the interface? Music is such an ephemeral art that it resists connections and linkage. Borodin must have known that as he juggled his two demanding vocations. His work as physician and chemist interrupted his composing and consumed so much of his time and energy that he left many pieces unfinished. Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov completed and orchestrated his masterpiece, the opera Prince Igor, and other works. Yet Borodin managed to leave a legacy of Russian music that has endured. How? I think he must have continued to shake the salad dressing, knowing full well that the constituents would separate again. Perhaps it’s better to be an amateur musician and a professional chemist than the other way around.


[1] Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Boethius and Dante support the notion that the heavenly bodies produce harmonic frequencies, but Aristotle denied it in On the Heavens, Book II, Chapter 9. See also Robert R. Riley, “The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music,”

[2] “. . . for our everyday business in the world. . . we need time measurements, and we can measure time only by measuring spatial distances.” The Life of the Mind, II, Willing, p. 13. New York: Harcourt, 1978.

[3] Guido d’Arezzo (fl. ca. 1000) is traditionally credited with inventing staff notation, but writing notes on, above or below a line was common well before that. Descartes’ coordinate system for plotting points on a plane dates from around 1630. I have been explaining staff notation to students as simple points on a graph for my entire career of thirty years.

[4] When young musicians are building their skill set and mastering musical notation, they become proficient in reading pitch before they do rhythm. Any youth orchestra conductor will tell you that rhythmic accuracy is a bigger problem than just playing the right notes.



About Dr. Lawrence Sisk

Professor Emeritus of Music at Lewis University

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