Einstein’s Musical Muse

In 1905, long before we understand that space makes ripples, Einstein proposed the idea that time, like space, is also a dimension that can be curved and bent. Einstein had pondered about curvature of spacetime since he was 16—and it wasn’t just because he’s a theoretical genius. Believing that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” Einstein did various thought experiments that would later serve as a foundation to his theories, all guided by classical music as the tunnel to enter another dimension of time.

As the music unfolded, musical patterns open and emerge, and so was his ideas on relativities. Einstein had a pen ready next to the violin. The 30 min musical break paused abruptly as he jotted down his ideas.

Einstein began his violin lessons when he was 5, possibly encouraged by his mother who was also a music enthusiast. Exhibiting a disdain towards formal education system from an early age, Einstein despised the practical drills in violin lessons so much he once threw a chair at his teacher. But when he was 13, he discovered Mozart’s sonatas, which opens up “…yet another fragment of the frontier of beauty.” Mozart’s music became Einstein’s life-long subject of curiosity. As he explored the delicate and refined fabric of spacetime, Einstein intuitively listened and marveled on Mozart’s architectural pieces, that to him:

“…was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”

Classical music, especially those written by Bach and Mozart, was a creative force to Einstein’s scientific career. Not only that he believed he will become a musician had he not a scientist, Einstein’s pursuit for aesthetic qualities in his theories were driven by the unified and harmonious form of classical music. His e=mc2 was a divinely ‘simple’ equation that reflects the “pre-established harmony” naturally exist in the universe, just waiting to be discovered.

Yet he made it clear that it wasn’t just classical music—the fine art of music—that gave him access to that deep space of thinking. A little-known story tells Einstein encouraging a young mother to read his son fairytales if she wants him to become a scientist. Einstein was also fond of children, actively replying to letters from kids around the world, commending kids not to be discouraged by teachers and answering question whether scientists pray. Beyond classical music or fairytales, Einstein believed that a well-rounded person comes from a well-rounded study, where a discipline such as science can come full circle through arts and humanities, a “combinatory play,” an invitation to interweave seemingly unrelated disciplines into a single subject of curiosity.

Throughout university, Einstein persisted with his contempt towards the autocratic schooling system. He would miss classes to work on his own in labs or play his violin he fondly called Lina. While in Switzerland, as he pondered on one of the most difficult physics at that time: how to marry Newton’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s electromagnetism–the question that is the basis for his relativity theories—he would spend a lot of hours practicing Brahm’s violin sonata in G Major. He survived university with notes from classmate and after graduation, he was refused promotion to work in the university.

But it wasn’t long before he published the groundbreaking special relativity theory when he was just 26.

Many professional musicians would later testify that Einstein had difficulties counting music and often missed his entrance. A concert pianist Arthur Schnabel recalled Einstein gotten lost whilst rehearsing Mozart’s Sonata, “For God’s sake professor, can’t you count to four?” There’s so many variations of this said by many musicians. And it could be true – even as an amateur violinist for decades and a world-class mathematician, Einstein perhaps couldn’t count music. But he played anyway, carrying his Lina whenever he went, rehearses, and performs when he can, even missed the Nobel peace prize to perform in Japan.

The universe as we know it exists on a space and time dimension, with time works like a space that can bends and ripple, hence the term spacetime. It’s no wonder that Einstein senses time in a different way in his theories as he meditates on the various depths and layers of classical music, with their ebbs and flows, stretches and compresses. Music does bend time in our mind; framing time as relative, a “stubbornly persistent illusion,” as Einstein famously said.

Classical music continued to be the well-spring of inspirations for Einstein as a scientist and beyond:

“It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.”

As he aged, his muscle control declined and he had to retire his violin. He gave his violin to his grandson, the last of his 10 violins.

In 1952, a group of musicians from Juilliard, paid a visit to Einstein’s home in Princeton, where they performed Beethoven, Bartok, and two Mozart quintets. In the end, knowing that Einstein no longer had his violin, they brought an extra violin. Robert Mann, the first volinist asked Einstein, It would give us great joy, to make music with you. Einstein chose Mozart’s brooding Quintet in G minor. Though his hands are fragile, Mann recalled, “His coordination, sense of pitch, and concentration were awesome.”


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