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Music and the Making of Modern Science

Music and the Making of Modern Science

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Publication Date: July 3rd, 2014
The MIT Press
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A wide-ranging exploration of how music has influenced science through the ages, from fifteenth-century cosmology to twentieth-century string theory.

In the natural science of ancient Greece, music formed the meeting place between numbers and perception; for the next two millennia, Pesic tells us in Music and the Making of Modern Science, “liberal education” connected music with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy within a fourfold study, the quadrivium. Peter Pesic argues provocatively that music has had a formative effect on the development of modern science—that music has been not just a charming accompaniment to thought but a conceptual force in its own right.

Pesic explores a series of episodes in which music influenced science, moments in which prior developments in music arguably affected subsequent aspects of natural science. He describes encounters between harmony and fifteenth-century cosmological controversies, between musical initiatives and irrational numbers, between vibrating bodies and the emergent electromagnetism. He offers lively accounts of how Newton applied the musical scale to define the colors in the spectrum; how Euler and others applied musical ideas to develop the wave theory of light; and how a harmonium prepared Max Planck to find a quantum theory that reengaged the mathematics of vibration. Taken together, these cases document the peculiar power of music—its autonomous force as a stream of experience, capable of stimulating insights different from those mediated by the verbal and the visual. An innovative e-book edition available for iOS devices will allow sound examples to be played by a touch and shows the score in a moving line.

About the Author

Peter Pesic, writer, pianist, and scholar, is Director of the Science Institute and Musician-in-Residence at St. John's College, Santa Fe. He is the author of Abel's Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability; Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature; Sky in a Bottle; and Music and the Making of Modern Science, all published by the MIT Press.

Praise for Music and the Making of Modern Science

In this magnificent book, trotting from Pythagoras to Max Planck and beyond, Pesic shows us again and again how music informed innovation, and he offers illuminating new insights into nearly three millennia of scientific developments. Pesic's rigorous analysis of source material allows him to confidently credit music for its critical role in the innovations of Johannes Kepler's astronomy, Leonhard Euler's topology, and Planck's quantized energy. It is a testament to Pesic's quiver of knowledge that he can so thoroughly examine the work of so many polymaths.—Alexandra Hui, Physics Today

This is a well-argued and well-illustrated text that should be of especial interest to students and scholars (and indeed anyone) with a background in the mathematical and physical sciences or their histories and who are intrigued by the book's provocative title.


There is very much to admire in this challenging, thought-provoking and beautifully illustrated book. There is a digital version of the text which allows many of the musical examples to be experienced directly. Many readers will rejoice in these rich accounts of the choreography of music and science - and perhaps see it as evidence not of a one-way street, but as the two-way traffic that connects music and science in history.

Times Literary Supplement