Musicians influence science and scientists in many different ways!

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Francis Crick Institute in London. This is one of the world’s top research institutes, but I was there to talk about why science needs musicians, at a half-day music symposium.

This is a short summary of my talk, listing some of the ways that musicians are influencing science.

In 2015 I ran a survey in which over 700 people shared the level at which they were involved in either music or science. A large number of them were involved in both. Often these were full-time scientists with a music hobby (more on that later), and some of them were in bands where they made music with other scientists.

Sometimes these scientist bands perform at conferences, in front of their science colleagues. People you normally only see in a meeting or a lecture are suddenly on stage, singing and playing guitar. These performances contribute to the culture of the field, by making it slightly more personable and less formal.

Not all scientists take their musical hobby on stage in front of their peers. For some, being involved in music after hours serves as a welcome distraction from the harsh world of research.

This was definitely the case for me, when I was still working in a lab. I absolutely needed to spend some time with my orchestra pals once a week and focus on a completely different challenge for a few hours!

This summer, Manasi Kulkarni-Khasnis wrote a great essay for the Nature Careers column, in which she described how doing a PhD affected her metal health in a bad way, until she got back into music.

“I started planning my work efficiently so that I could get home in time and devote time to music. (…) My experiments started working, or, more accurately, the failures weighed upon me less.” — Manasi Kulkarni-Khasnis

Another way by which musicians influence science is through their expertise. Some fields benefit from experts in both music and science. Think of the field of neuroscience, for example. When researchers study the effect of music on the brain, they need to understand both the music and the brain. And engineers who develop sensitive sound technology for musicians need to understand musicians’ sound needs and the technology.

Some of that music technology even makes its way back into science. High quality sound recording, designed for use by musicians, is used in soundscape ecology: Instead of (or in addition to) camera traps, these researchers place microphones to capture continuous audio. These recordings can give them information about things such as vegetation density, species’ population decline, or habitat threats.

Another way that sound technology is used in science is through sonification: turning data into sound. Sometimes this is more for fun than for research. You can find several forms of “DNA music” online, where someone turned a genetic code into music, but that music often does not provide much more information than visual or computational analysis does. However, there are some useful applications too. The most famous example of sonification is the use of Geiger counters, where the increased ticking clearly signifies “danger” once the machine gets closer to a radioactive source.

Music can also be used in science education. There are songs to teach kids about basic scientific concepts, and some teachers have their students write their own science songs as part of the curriculum.

Science songs can also be part of science festivals, science comedy nights, or general geek culture. They Might Be Giants produced an entire album with science songs, and Tom Lehrer’s Element Song is a classic.

They Might Be Giants. Photo by Streetsim on Wikimedia Commons..

Although the goal of some science music is to inform and educate, this isn’t always the case. Scientific discovery also serves as inspiration for musicians. Björk and GZA both worked with scientists in their journeys to create artistic works inspired by research. Other musicians can be inspired by something they read in the paper about space exploration or new materials or climate change.

Even when they don’t sing about science, musicians at the top of their field can use their reach and social status to drum up support for science. They play at fundraisers, speak out in defense of scientific research, or simply share that they are curious about science. Whether it’s Offspring front man Dexter Holland talking about his molecular biology research, or singer Charlotte Church sharing her interest in physics and neuroscience, these musicians send the message that science is important to them. If that piques the interest of their fans, that is better science communication than most scientists can do!

Science and music are intertwined in many ways, but the strongest link is through the many people who are involved or interested in both fields. Musicians make science more personable and less stressful for scientists. They bring new expertise to scientific fields, and they give science a voice through their work and actions. That’s why science needs musicians.

Writer, science communicator, musician. Find more of my writing at Forbes.com, Undark, Nature, Nautilus, The Scientist, Hakai and other places.

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