Roya Moussapour ’17 doesn’t remember how she learned music. It’s just something that she’s always done, like the way she’s always been interested in math and science. But for Moussapour, like a lot of physics majors and professors, her interests in music and physics aren’t mutually exclusive. There are a considerable number of students and professors in the College’s physics department who are classically trained musicians, a trend that Associate Professor of Physics Mark Battle says makes a lot of sense. 

“The way music is organized as a series of events in time and the way that the brain processes sound probably is connected to the way we process numbers and math and logic,” Battle said. “And certainly there are musicians who don’t have an affinity for math, but there are an awful lot who do.”

A graduate of the Tufts Dual Degree program with the New England Conservatory, Battle received two bachelor degrees upon graduation: one in Physics and another in Clarinet Performance. Although he finds it difficult to find time to play as a full-time professor, he notes that his studies of both disciplines complement each other well. 

“There are times when [you’re] just sitting in isolation working on a piece of music when all of a sudden, things fall into place,” Battle said. “You do it right, and you realize the inner conception of the music. You’ve had this idea of what it should be in your head, and that comes out in sound. The satisfaction is a bit like figuring out a physics problem—there’s a satisfaction in suddenly having things work.” 

This similarity in the learning process is a phenomenon that many students and professors of physics experience. In the way that the study of physics is often equated to solving a puzzle, learning a piece of music is also often seen as a type of problem set. Moussapour, who began playing the violin at the age of six, notes that her practice of music has been applicable in her studies in physics. 

“There’s a specific connection between being able to problem solve through physics problems and being able to work through a piece of music,” Moussapour said. “I think in a lot of ways, they require the same skills. There’s definitely a tie between learning to see the bigger problem, either a physics problem or a piece of music, and breaking it down into smaller chunks to understand it. Being a musician and learning how to think about something in a musical mindset has definitely affected my ability to understand things in a mathematical mindset in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do.”

For some physicists, such as Senior Lecturer of Physics and founder of the Vox Nova Chamber Choir Karen Topp, it’s the similarities in the structures of musical time and physics that they use to draw the connection between the two disciplines.

“The thing that attracted me to physics was that there are a few basic laws, and if you understand those at a deep level, you can figure out a lot,” Topp said. “When I studied music theory, the same kind of structure of learning applies, where you use a few basic principles of harmony, and if you truly understand or analyze classical music, there is structure to it. People like to give structure to their way of understanding the world.”

Although many Bowdoin students and professors of physics alike have considered careers in music performance, some ultimately decided against it for reasons of practicality. Their resounding sentiment, often realized at a young age, was that the study of physics is easier to turn into a career than that of music.

“I decided that I could always do music, and I could always play at any level and always enjoy it. If I gave up on academics to do music, it would be a lot harder to go back the other way,” Moussapour said. “But it is something that I will always have, and it’s something that I’ve turned to in really tough times. For me, it’s a way to express emotions in ways where sometimes words don’t necessarily express how I feel well, or I don’t feel comfortable expressing something fully in words.”

Professor of Physics Thomas Baumgarte, a double bass player in the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, believes that in addition to being a cathartic hobby, his practice of making music originates from an affinity for aesthetics, one of the main reasons for his love of physics.
“With music, people have a very emotional reaction to it—it’s a way of making something beautiful,” Baumgarte said. “And that appeals to me in physics, too. Math is the language of physics, but it describes nature, and what very much appeals to me in physics is that it describes nature in such a beautiful way.”