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Writer's Help:Music & String Theory

  1. Dec 4, 2011 #1
    Hi, All:
    I am a fiction writer and am interested in writing a short story that ties actual music with physicists' string theory. I have (very) rudimentary knowledge based on layman readings and shows like Brian Greene's TV series. If I have it correct, at the very core of everything are tiny vibrating strings. The string vibrate in different ways to make up you, me, the chair on which I am sitting, the Universe.

    I know that there is no actual connection b/t music and string theory, and music is just used as a metaphor in explanations, but I would like to explore a hypothetical relationship for science fiction purposes. Does anyone have ideas for how to make the connection sensical?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 4, 2011 #2
    Music is controlled vibrations.
    Controlled vibrations of, in our case, air.
    It could be vibrations of any media.
  4. Dec 4, 2011 #3

    I know zero about string theory but ordinary quantum mechanics has many close parallels to musical instruments. I can tell you more if you like.
  5. Dec 4, 2011 #4

    Please do tell me more. Aside from a thimbleful of knowledge about waves & harmonics, I am in the dark. Thanks in advance for your response.
  6. Dec 5, 2011 #5


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    Welcome to PF!

    You’re right, there is no direct connection between science and music, and I must add that string theory is still under development; I’m not sure it can make a coherent picture of the chair on which I am sitting on (yet). :wink:

    Besides this, it’s of course very interesting. Einstein played the violin, and said that "life without playing music is inconceivable to me" [...] "I am happy because I want nothing from anyone. I do not care for money. Decorations, titles, or distinctions mean nothing to me. I do not crave praise. The only thing that gives me pleasure, apart from my work, my violin, and my sailboat, is the appreciation of my fellow workers".

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/13/Albert_Einstein_violin.jpg/300px-Albert_Einstein_violin.jpg [Broken]

    Max Planck is another among many physicists that have been fascinated by music, and found relaxation and fulfillment in playing. Max Planck was a highly gifted pianist, cellist, composer and singer.

    You don’t need string theory to make working parallels to music. A vibrating guitar string could be described using classical Newtonian mechanics:


    You can also find mathematical similarities in QM and the fundamental Schrödinger equation for the wavefunction. Here are graphical representations for the first eight bound eigenstates:


    And in 'action', you could imagine that this is not that far from a vibrating 'guitar string':

    Two stationary states and a superposition
    state at the bottom.

    And in fact, Hilbert spaces (utilized in QM) can be used to study the harmonics of vibrating strings.


    And spherical harmonics are important in many theoretical and practical applications, particularly in the computation of atomic orbital electron configurations in QM.


    Dmitri Tymoczko at Princeton University has taken these relations one step further and applied musical harmonies to a 2D configuration space and developed software for this analysis.


    Chord geometries for Chopin:


    Here is more info on this research:

    The Geometry of Music - TIME Magazine Science

    What Music and String Theory Have in Common

    The Geometry of Musical Chords - AAAS Science

    Dmitri Tymoczko - Princeton University

    Good luck! :smile:
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  7. Dec 5, 2011 #6
    Quantum mechanics is about standing waves, just like in a musical instrument. Blow into a flute and you get a note that is a standing wave, blow harder and the octave. It depends on the length of the flute. In QM the length is the distance between the matter that releases the energy and the matter that absorbs it. If you have more energy then the frequency doubles, just like the flute. The difference in energy is the quantum that everyone talks about.

    Or guitar strings. Pluck it and you get a standing wave. It is a combination of the root frequency and the harmonics, which are double, triple, quadruple, etc. of the root frequency. One string gets all those tones mixed together. In QM you usually get that kind of mixture.

    Get a guitar and play a note on an open string, then touch that string lightly in the middle(12th fret). The frequency will double. Do it again and touch the string at the 7th fret. The frequency will triple. 1,2,3,4,etc.

    So in QM if you have an oven then you can think of any pair of atoms in the walls of the oven as being connected by an imaginary string like that, in which there is a standing wave of energy. Electrons and other massive particles behave this way too: the electron is more likely to appear where there imaginary wave is moving the most.
  8. Dec 5, 2011 #7
    Thank you Patrick and DA! This is a treasure trove for me. Now I've got to ruminate on what I've learned (and read/watch several more times), so that I can ask more specific questions. Although it's fiction it's important to me that what I write is based on truth (or, as the case may be, current theory), so that when I stretch and bend it to fit the plot it at least is grounded in something other than my imagination.

    And now, to make things interesting, is another element I wish to include: brain waves.
    I find it interesting that when musicians play together, their brain waves synchronize (at least for this study).


    Kind Regards,
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2011
  9. Dec 5, 2011 #8


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    You are welcome! :wink:

    Roger Penrose have argued that consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects in microtubules, but this idea was refuted by Max Tegmark, so if I were you, I go easy on the "brain waves", i.e. if you want to be based on mainstream science...

  10. Dec 6, 2011 #9
    Brain waves are mainstream science. Attach electrodes to the skull and observe.
  11. Dec 6, 2011 #10


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    Of course you are right, it was just to make clear to NM that we are not talking "non-local QM waves". It’s an interesting study, but to me, it’s absolutely clear that what put the musicians in sync are primarily sound waves.

    Put two people in sound isolated boxes, and tell them to keep a steady beat for 10 min. Only most gifted pros could keep this beat precisely (to a metronome or in sync with the other person).
  12. Dec 6, 2011 #11
    DA- I'm familiar with what you are talking about (i.e., the "Quantum Mind"), but Patrick is correct in that my interest lies in mainstream brain research (brain waves; mirror neurons).

    I'm sure this story doesn't sound particularly exciting... brain waves, music and physics. (Sounds more like the kind of college torture lecture given at 8AM on a Monday). If you are at all interested, the inspiration for the short story is Mark Oliver Everett, Hugh's son, who is a musician.

    Speaking of Hugh... I hope someone can help me grasp the difference between Many Worlds and the Multiverse or Multiple Universes theories. It seems that in popular culture they are often used interchangeably, but from what I've read they are not the same. MW, as I understand it, suggests that all possible outcomes exist simultaneously (the proverbial cat is alive AND dead), and that it refutes the Copenhagen Interpretation that the wave function collapses when the observer peeks into the box, and that what s/he sees is the one reality (a dead or alive cat). Am I following? The MW also allows for worlds to interfere with each other; that is, they can merge again at some point in the future, though the memories must be retained from only one of the worlds (how it's determined which memory rules, I have no clue!).

    The Multiverse theories are more about bubble universes; how there are many out there that may or may not contain copies of us, or have the same physics. But they are completely separate -- there is no interaction at all between them, no merging, etc.

    I also don't understand what constitutes a "quantum event" that would cause the world to split in Everett's model. And, if the world branches when I , say, take a right rather than a left in the road, it must also split based on what else is going on, right? So if someone I am with falls asleep while I am turning left, there is another world where that person stays awake when I turn left but falls asleep when I turn right. That's a heck of a lot of branching out! It makes my brain explode. I wish I could speak to myself in the world where I understand this stuff; it would make things a lot easier!

    PS BTW, Patrick's response almost made me spit out my coffee this morning -- VERY funny--though I am sure DA is well-aware of skulls and wires.
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