Amelia Carver, who majors in music, says when she heard Yo-Yo Ma play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, “I walked out of that auditorium tingling all over. I felt like I was vibrating at a higher frequency. Music,” she says, “is the process of being in sync, a metaphor for finding your own rhythm with the world.”
Who goes to MIT to major in music?
Ask Alex Rigopulos ’92 ’94, a former music major, who along with Eran Egozy ’95, an engineer, founded Harmonix Music Systems, which produced two of the hottest music video game series of the decade, amassing billions in sales.
“Many scientists and engineers have a deep affinity for music,” Rigopulos says. “I suspect it’s because both science and engineering are rooted in trying to comprehend deep and hidden structures. The appeal of uncovering those hidden structures is part of what draws many who love science and engineering to music as well.”
Music resounds at MIT. Eighty percent of this year’s incoming class participated in the arts in high school, while 69 percent arrived at MIT with musical training. This year, nearly 1,900 students enrolled in music and theater arts courses. In fact, music is the fifth most popular of the Institute’s 42 minors. More students minor in music than in energy.
“MIT students speak the language of math and science. Music is sound. Sound is acoustics. In a sense, music is math and science,” says Evan Ziporyn, who heads MIT’s Music and Theater Arts Section, and who is a composer, clarinetist, and the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music.
“All over the Institute, music is practiced; it’s not preached,” says Philip Khoury, associate provost with responsibility for the arts. “In fact, so many science and engineering professors are also musicians, we could put together a terrific orchestra just from our faculty.”
Like much of MIT’s music faculty—who has appeared at Carnegie Hall or performed for the Pope—violist Marcus Thompson, artistic director of the Boston Chamber Music Society, has an international reputation. “People are still surprised to find out that there’s music at all at MIT, and it’s not only good, but it’s great.”
Known for its symphony orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, two choirs, Senegalese drumming group, Balinese gamelan, and dozens of chamber music groups, MIT also hosts a world-class music library, and the Emerson Scholars, a program for students who are conservatory-level performers.
“Many MIT students are qualified to have gone into a conservatory, but they come to MIT, because frankly, they—and their parents—know they’re going to be gainfully employed,” says David Deveau, senior lecturer in music. “If you’re on the cutting-edge of biological engineering or neuroscience, you’re assured a good career, whereas if you can brilliantly play Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, there are 3,000 other pianists in the U.S. who can play it too. In music, getting a job is much more a roll of the dice.”
Fifty years ago, says Evan Ziporyn, “those who flocked to the symphony were older people, the professional class — doctors, lawyers. Now the audience,” he says, “is the new intelligentsia –– computer programmers, engineers, people in information technology.”
In addition to their ability to afford it, what’s beginning to happen, Deveau explains, “is younger ones keep coming. People are too busy. They need refuge from the number crunching, the deadlines, the problems at work. People really need a time where they can’t answer their cellphone, where they can just sit and close their eyes in a beautiful space and let their thoughts wander.”
Deveau, a world-class concert pianist who programs and presents 30 concerts a year as artistic director of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, says that music is energy and needs to be exchanged between living people. “There’s something sterile about a recording. All the bloopers are edited and you’ve got a perfect product. In concert, anything can happen. It’s like a live, high-wire act. And that’s the excitement and the electricity for the audience and the performers.”
Increasingly, the university is becoming an inviting home for the performing arts, says Khoury, the Ford International Professor of History. As high costs cause museums, symphony halls, and operas to struggle, “we need to make sure that the young everywhere are having access to the arts.”
A performing arts facility is now a priority at MIT, says President L. Rafael Reif. “Our students and faculty in the performing arts deserve their own quality space that is as inspirational as their work. This has been a longtime need — and a dream — for many at MIT, and we are exploring how to make this possible,” he says, adding that options range from reimagining an existing building such as Walker Memorial as a performing arts center to building an entirely new facility on campus.
Leap into unknown
Faculty and students say that in addition to bringing balance to academic life, studying music teaches discipline, discernment, and problem solving. Composer Elena Ruehr, a lecturer in music, says it also enables us to leap into the unknown.
“It’s hard to write a string quartet in the style of Haydn that’s beautiful. How is it beautiful? You need to make an intuitive leap. Studying music is like lifting weights,” she says. “It makes your mind more fluid and gives you the ability to shift perspective, to see the same thing from many angles. If you can see a pattern in music, suddenly it can shift a paradigm in another discipline.”
Before he cofounded Harmonix and zoomed to success, Alex Rigopulos was a grad student at MIT’s Media Lab. Studying music, he says, was a great way for a young person to search for his own voice and find it. “Music has this incredible power to unearth our inner emotional lives and force us to confront them,” he says.
“Like many college students, I was doing a lot of soul searching about what I wanted to do with my life. MIT’s music program saved me as a person. After years of feeling adrift, I had this moment of clarity where I realized that I needed to devote my life to music in some way, and I was lucky enough to be in this special environment where I could study science and engineering at a serious level, but at the same time, I could also pursue music with great intensity. MIT provided an unusual environment where I could explore the intersection of both worlds.”
New media integration
Integrating our interests, we integrate ourselves. And some say, we are now being called to integrate ourselves in a new way, with new media and new technologies.
“We live in a world of complete compartmentalization,” Ziporyn says. “From preschool, we tell our children, here’s your math class, art class, history class. But how do you develop an organic, holistic life? It’s not just that it would be cool to bring your interests together but one kind of thinking begins to affect another, creating a holistic mind. With new media and new technologies, this integration is essential, because we’re now living in a society where this kind of innovation is what’s driving everything.”
Eran Egozy, an engineer and concert-level clarinetist who along with Rigopulos was named by TIME among the 100 most influential people in the world, is a pioneer in new media. “The kind of technologies that people are building today, opposed to 20 years ago, is much more connected to how people interact in social aspects of our culture, like Google, Facebook, or Twitter. At first, computers were super technical. Now technology and humanity are deeply interlinked. It’s actually really important for people graduating with a technical or scientific degree to be immersed in the arts because it’s so much more relevant to today’s products and innovations.”
Tod Machover, who is among the most innovative composers of his generation and has invented many new technologies for music, including hyperinstruments for Yo-Yo Ma and Prince, is the Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media at the Media Lab.
“All of a sudden, music is listened to in a whole new way,” he says. “The song of a famous artist is now just a seed and a whole community reacts to it. Audio becomes like clay. Kids now make their own version of an artist’s song, modify it, and share it electronically.”
“Right now, I’m writing a symphony for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and I’ve invited the whole city of Toronto to collaborate with me. It’s a team of a million people. Partly, I send out music for the community to modify; partly we collaborate face-to-face or via Skype. The resulting symphony this spring will test a new balance between democracy and excellence. MIT is an unparalleled place to explore the technology, sociology, and musicality of new areas.”
Blurring the boundaries
Now more than ever, students and faculty say, boundaries are blurring across disciplines. It’s not just music anymore. It’s music and science. Music and engineering. Music and technology. Your mind may be lit with the Moonlight Sonata, but now, we must consider music in concert with computer science, brain science, or linguistics.
Michael Scott Cuthbert, a pioneer in digital musicology, recently collaborated with computer programmers to develop music21, musical analysis software. Computational musicology is the idea that if you turn huge numbers of songs into data and analyze it with a computer, you can learn things about music otherwise impossible to know. Like, say, what makes French music French? “It’s a new way of thinking about how to understand problems and perplexing moments in music,” says Cuthbert, associate professor of music and the Homer A. Burnell Career Development Professor, who predicts “our students are going to be the ones who will develop new theories of how people interact with technology as art, and art as technology.”
David Pesetsky is the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics. Recently, he and grad student Jonah Katz examined the structure of music. What they determined was that no language uses tones like music, and no musical system uses words like language. But once you acknowledge that the components of language and music are different, the ways that those components are combined and recombined, appear to be alike. “Our claim is that music and language might actually be the same cognitive system,” says Pesetsky, adding that “progress in new fields inevitably will be made by those who cross the boundaries.”
Music and science may seem like an unlikely melody, but some at MIT suggest they’re part of the same lovely song.
Pawan Sinha, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, is creating music from brain waves. His pioneering work on how the brain extracts meaning from sights and sounds made it possible to restore sight to the blind. Now, he has developed Brain Jukebox, an algorithm that reconstructs sound sequences from the mental patterns of listeners and plays it back. One day, he predicts that without listening to an external piece of music, someone could imagine Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, then record their brain activity and play it back. “It’s like reconstruction of a person’s thoughts. Essentially, it would be tantamount to making explicit the internal thinking of a person,” Sinha says, adding that the insights could be used to treat neurological disorders.
Unity beyond diversity
Not only does music transcend disciplines but also seems to transcend bias. Some say that barriers between people are in our minds, and music helps dissolve them.
Patricia Tang, an ethnomusicologist, cofounded Rambax, MIT’s Senegalese drumming group. Twice she escorted Rambax students to Senegal to perform. “What happens is students are learning not just about the drumming; they’re learning about Senegalese culture,” she says, adding that the music draws people together across cultures and can be peacemaking. “There’s something wonderful about being in a sea of 40 drummers playing in perfect unison. When you’re in rhythm with other people, it’s a feeling of community.”
Evan Ziporyn agrees. Founder of MIT’s Balinese gamelan, Ziporyn says with its cross-cultural message, the music took on greater significance after 9/11. “A message of that time was keep your culture out of our culture. It suddenly seemed to me that the message of this music was there’s intrinsic value in having an intense encounter with people from other countries.”
Michael Scott Cuthbert, who has studied music from the Plague in 1348 to music of the past 40 years, says: “We’re no longer limited to the music of our geographical region. People working on Chopin also listen to music from Indonesia or to Japanese pop. We begin to see that our assumptions about music are not necessarily universal truths. We have a campus environment that is stronger with diverse viewpoints. I believe we’re creating the next generation of engineers who will see these moments of bias.”
In sync without words
Perhaps above all, music is a way to seek union. Talk to any music expert at MIT and they will tell you making music is magical. Perhaps it is the merging of our energy, but when you resonate with others, they say, something marvelous happens. Where we are one, there is only harmony.
“When you sing in a chorus and it all just clicks, you feel as if you are all one big voice,” says Elena Ruehr. “There’s this sense of oneness. Instead of being 50 people all singing a piece of music, you’re one big, superhuman sound. In the moment, you just feel elated and empowered. I don’t know,” she wonders, “is there a word besides love?”
“Relationships musicians develop with each other are more than collegial, more than friendship. They’re familial. In a certain sense, they’re like love relationships,” says Evan Ziporyn. “A violinist and pianist playing together in rhythm get in sync without words. It’s very intimate. There’s an ecstasy that you reach.”
Eran Egozy believes that his gigantic success with music video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, came because he and Alex Rigopulos designed the games for people to feel this very feeling.
“It’s hard to describe, but if you have a tight group making music together, you really feel like you’re penetrating into their souls. It’s nonverbal, but the communication is very deep. There’s a wonderful magic, this awesome feeling that music is part of all of us. And it’s so mysterious.”
Marcus Thompson, the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music, is aware of the mystery. “It starts any time you’re performing,” he says. “You’re in a totally different mental space. When you go into this state, you’re exalted. You’re in another reality. It’s like an out-of-body experience. You have transcended your mind and whatever it is you are doing. It’s spiritual. And the experience is sublime. In some ways, you prepare for it but you don’t feel responsible for it. It really is about something greater than yourself.”
Pythagoras and string theory
“It has been suggested for centuries, since Pythagoras, that this ecstasy has to do with resonance. It’s literally good vibrations. The whole basis of tuning, from Pythagoras on, has been resonating bodies. That’s what makes an instrument or chord sound good,” Ziporyn says.
Pythagoras believed that the mathematical order to music was an example of the principle of number which underlies the universe. Music, he thought, is an aural representation of relationships between numbers and that all musical consonance is based on ratios of adjacent numbers.
“What I find interesting,” Ziporyn says, “is Pythagoras had these ideas thousands of years ago, and now, what is string theory? It’s the idea that at the most microscopic level, what converts energy into mass is these kind of vibrating strings. There’s got to be a connection.”
Pythagoras also believed in Harmony of the Spheres, an ancient concept that regards proportions in the movement of the planets, moon, and sun as a form of music, not necessarily actual, audible music, but rather, a harmonic or mathematical concept.
“Let’s just say, I hope he’s right,” says Institute Prof. John Harbison, a Pulitzer-prize winner who has composed music for the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony. “Because without some Pythagorean theory about the universe, the best music I know, like Bach’s music, after a certain point, I would have no way of explaining from where the music came, because not only is it so good but it is so far-beyond-explanation good.”
“I think that with all great art, there is a divine order,” says David Deveau. “If you listen to Bach, it is like the musical embodiment of what Pythagoras thought. There’s a perfection and a logic to it. Bach’s music is all about order. It’s the universe in sound.”
On Topic: Alex Rigopulos, Amelia Carver, arts, David Deveau, David Pesetsky, Eran Egozy, Evan Ziporyn, faculty, Guitar Hero, humanities, Jonah Katz, L. Rafael Reif, Marcus Thompson, media arts+sciences, media lab, Michael Scott Cuthbert, music, Patricia Tang, Pawan Sinha, Philip Khoury, Rambax, Rock Band, students, Theater, Tod Machover