Music & Math: “Elective Affinities”

Music and Math

Ever since I was a youth I have been passionately drawn music, all kinds of music, including jazz, blues, soul, folk, rock, pop  or world music, but especially symphonic and sacred music. I’m drawn to all the great music, whether the era is medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, modern or contemporary. Great music has profound things to say about the human spirit and the experience of life.

The philosopher Kant and others of his generation wrote about “the beautiful and the sublime.” For me it is music of all the arts that most perfectly expresses the sacred and profound depths of the beautiful and the sublime. Kant’s philosophy has been called “transcendental idealism,” and even without further elaboration it is fair to say that for millions of human beings the experience of listening to the world’s great music continues to “transport” them into a timeless realm of transcendent joy.

My life-long romance with music, especially classical and sacred music, began early. As a young boy of five while living with my Pentecostal grandparents in Southern California I mostly heard Southern Gospel music sung in the home. It was belted out with great passion and conviction by the members of my grand parents’ large extended family – four grown sons and four grown daughters, and their kids. My grandmother Nellie was very musical. She played the piano by ear and has a natural aptitude for writing lovely poetry. I remember how they would sing “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There” and other Gospel favorites.

Later at the age of nine I was introduced to classical music by my step-father George. I will never forget the first time I heard a recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. I could hardly believe that such grand and heroic music could exist in the world. I wanted to listen to everything that Tchaikovsky ever composed. His music opened my mind to the ineffable and the sublime as nothing else I had yet experienced.

Then in my freshman year of high school I enrolled in a Classical Music Appreciation class. The instructor was a master-teacher, passionate about music and a true friend to his students. My most vivid memory of that classroom experience was listen to Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and being mesmerized by it. Now I was “hooked on classics” for life. Of course I went to explore the “great works” of the musical masters, including Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms,  Chopin, Debussy, Respighi, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and all the rest. Even to hear their names spoken aloud fills me with quiet joy. I began to have a hunch that the masters of classical music, though as conflicted and perplexed about life as the rest of us, but perhaps they saw and knew things under the influence of inspiration that most of us only glimpse in fleeting moments. Or perhaps they were the conduits of a transcendental reality, even when they themselves had no idea what they were doing.

I’m one of those persons who is blessed (or cursed?) with what is called “musicophilia”, but it’s different for me than for Oliver Sacks who writes about “Music and the Brain.” While I’m interested in the neurological and cognitive aspects of music, my deeper fascination is more aesthetic, affective, intuitive, therapeutic and transcendental. Music can be understood and appreciated on multiple levels. My interest is not primarily mathematical, scientific and technical, that is, “from the outside in” but rather “from the inside out.” I’m interested in “what if feels like” and “what it evokes” in us psychologically and spiritually to be awakened and moved by the power of music.

Of course both the scientific and therapeutic  approaches to music are valid, but the latter approach is what attracted me to music in the first place. To reduce “music” to “mathematics” and “sublime visions of transcendence” to “the technology of organized sound” is to conflate the levels of our natural and human existence. It is to overlook an essential element, the immediate experience of qualia or inwardness, what it actually feels like “from the inside out” to be transported by music to realms ineffable.

On the other hand, I can appreciate that there are those who feel as passionately about mathematics as I do about music. Many researchers and scholars have pointed out the mental affinities between mathematics and music. At the same time it seems clear that a passion for mathematics and a passion for music can each exist without the company of the other. Some individuals are endowed with and cultivated a combined left-brain and right brain aptitude for both math ematics and music. It’s more complex than just left brain or right brain, but brain hemisphere dominance sure plays a part in it. For some people Music and Math are the supreme joys of life. Nothing could be more perfect.

While some people combine a love of both Mathematics and Music, they remain different kinds of intelligences. I would say that they represent different elective affinities, that they express two kinds of innate sensibilities that have their roots in different “epistemological intuitions” or foundational assumptions about how we know and experience the “really real.” Some people prefer to place their “fundamental trust” in mathematics as the bedrock of all reality, including the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences, as well as philosophy, religion, literature and the arts. For them mathematics is the Rosetta Stone, the key to all knowledge.

Other people prefer to place their “fundamental trust” in musical intelligence, often alongside artistic, poetic, literary and dramaturgic forms of intelligence, as “privileged disclosures” of the sacred depths of reality that not even  mathematics can adequately grasp or express. While a polarization between these two ways of “seeing”, “perceiving”, “judging” and “knowing” will appear ridiculous and unnecessary to most of us, there are some who insist that it’s a zero-sum game. For them one can only be “pro-mathematics” or “pro-music.” This issue comes to the foreground where there are debates and decisions to be made about funding public education. Today in our society Math, Science and Technology are the big winners where funding is concerned, and Music, along with the Humanities and the Arts are the big losers. Sparta wins. Athens loses.

Math and Music: These two do represent two different casts of mind, but they not incompatible with each other. After all, there are many who attempt to cultivate a “whole-brain” approach to human intelligences, an approach that integrates both the mathematical and musical, the scientific and the artistic, the analytical and the aesthetic, the objectively detached and the subjectively participatory ways of knowing and being. It is surely possible to do this without either separating or conflating them. So here’s to both Mathematics and Music, two elective affinities. May they both live long and prosper!


One thought on “Music & Math: “Elective Affinities””

  1. This is a day late, but I still wanted to weigh in and praise your efforts on this subject. I always like when you disclose your personal journey. Emotional connections like yours profoundly shaped your affinity for music much like mine. I’ve been trying to decide how to comment on your music vs mathematics and as a pianist, I regard the two as integral. Rhythm is math and rhythm is the backbone of every piece of music. The order of harmonic progression is highly organized based on numerical intervals. The mathematical basis of music is enthralling and thrilling! I do know what you were getting at….but I just felt like adding my two cents worth! See you tomorrow!

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