A Musical History of Science

Thomas Levenson

New York, 1994

As the subtitle might suggest, the reader needs to be equally interested in science and music to benefit from this study. Such readers will be glad to learn that this book exists, but may also look forward to alternative accounts. On both counts, I was strongly motivated to read it, but often found this a chore.

There is something ponderous about the style, which lurches from bellelettrist flourishes to pop science cliches. Chapter 7 begins, "The laboratory stands on the eastern edge of Palo Alto", with the next chapter beginning, "The building sticks out amidst its drabber neighbours".

The book is adorned by some fine old illustrations, like Robert Fludd's monochord and Robert Hooke's flea, although fine is the word for some of the line drawings, whose details call for Robert Grosseteste's lenses in order to be seen properly.

Levenson's theme, with its prolix optical and alchemical variations, is that of music as "a kind of laboratory within which to examine in sound the operation of laws that govern not just music, but all of creation" (p.68). He makes great play with instruments, as in this passage:

"Between 1608 and the 1680s a number of investigators pursued the sustained observation of the natural world through high-powered optical instruments. While, and partly because they did so, the object, the intent of scientific inquiry had shifted, marking the invention of what we can now recognize to be modern science." (p.85)

Of course we get to hear all about Newton's fascination with alchemy, and I would strongly recommend Mackay as an antidote to further enthralment, something that might have saved Levenson from saying this:

"Modern scientists still rely on the occult to save them from tasks they cannot master: for example, they do not ask what makes an electron both wave and particle but only how its wavelike and particlelike qualities manifest themselves." (p.152)

In his discussion of Stradivari's masterly work on the violin family, the author contrasts this inimitable skill with Newton's mechanistic understanding of physical systems, saying that,

"The actual experience of constructing a cello points out the flaw, the almost invisible crack, in the foundation of this Newtonian worldview." (p.221)

The part concerning virtuoso cellist Yo Yo Ma is certainly interesting, as is the discussion of Tod Machover's work at MIT's Media Lab. One final wolf howl before we go: how can you write several pages about the player piano without mentioning the man who specialized in composing for it: Conlon Nancarrow?



Paul Taylor 2001