Music and science may seem to be strange bedfellows — the only songs I could think of were Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” from the ’80s (and if you’re not old enough to remember that era and its fabulous goofy technopop, check out Devo while you’re at it), and “I Sing The Body Electric” from Fame (from the ’70s, which is making me feel really old).
Generally, they would seem to be polar opposites — science is about concrete data and provable facts, where music is emotional and subjective. Sure, you can give a scientific description of sound waves, but that doesn’t explain why some pieces of music affect us so emotionally. (For example, I get goosebumps when I hear the French horn entrance toward the end of the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony; I also start giggling every time I hear the intro to Spike Jones’ version of “Hawaiian War Chant.”) Besides, trying to analyze the beauty of music reminds me of E. B. White’s comment about why analyzing humor was like dissecting a frog — “Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
However, there is concrete scientific data on music’s value in aiding retention of information — it connects with the brain on multiple levels, which is why we teach kids the ABC song, or why anyone who ever learned the “50 Nifty” tune has no trouble remembering all 50 states in alphabetical order. (This multi-layer connection also explains “ear worms,” which is a disgustingly appropriate term for a tune that you can’t get out of your head. Often a TV theme or a commercial jingle — anyone old enough to remember “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is”?)
Science is getting a bad rap these days from people who deny climate change — an affliction common among right wing politicians and media pundits. Cosmos host Neil DeGrasse Tyson is doing his best to combat this willful ignorance, including his wonderful quote, “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.” I don’t have Tyson’s scientific expertise (or a TV show), but I can do my part by using music to help make the same point. (And to tie this all together, I’ve borrowed an ear-worm-ish ’80s TV theme . . . )