What is the connection between music and technology?
Answered by Michael Hawley
  • Michael Hawley

    Michael Hawley

  1. Michael Hawley Director of Special Projects and Founder of MIT's GO Expeditions Program


    I think there's a very rich connection. It depends on how you want to think about it. Anecdotally people like to say there's that math and music thing, and it is true. I taught at MIT for many years and MIT is an extraordinarily musical place. So many of the kids there excel at playing instruments or singing or composing, and so you do feel that the patterns of music kind of line up with the pattern abilities that scientists and engineers need to have.

    Also, a lot of music is very technologically involved. We take it for granted. My friend Danny Hillis likes to say that technology is anything that doesn't work very well yet, so it's hard to think of a Stradivarius as a piece of technology, but it sure is. Every one of these crazy instruments is some weird Rube Goldberg contraption that connects a gesture or a feeling or an impulse from a person to a sound, which fills a room which touches a listener, and for that matter the room is piece of technology and science, too.

    There's a very rich acoustic and mechanical world that supports our musical impulses, and it extends through things like iPods and computers and everything else. So I wouldn't say it's just computer science per se that is connected to music but science and engineering have enabled us to express our musical sentiment better. In the 19th century it was people like Helmholtz, who was a physicist, and in the 20th century it was Amar Bose -- more of an engineer, not so much a physicist. And lots of people, Edison with his industry and so forth.

    I think that part of the itch there that everybody scratches who gets involved in the interstices between technology and music is understanding why it's so beautiful and how to help make it more beautiful, whether it's a small improvement to an instrument or reengineering the acoustics in a concert hall or writing algorithms in software that compose and improvise. It's a very delicious area to think about. It's kind of irresistible if you're a scientist, engineer, or musician. I've also noticed, this may sound odd, but it's frequently the case that scientists and engineers turn out to be wonderful musicians. It's not so often the case that people who have made music their occupation turn into great scientists and engineers. It's not entirely a one-way arrow but there's a flux there that I think is interesting.

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