Strings attached: Harmony in the universe through music and physics

From Stradivarius to Superstring Theory by way of Aristotle, Einstein and Bruch Photo: My violin by M.t.lifshits via wikimedia commons

UNITED KINGDOM, September 12, 2013 — Ours is a very musical household. With two harps, three violins, six guitars, a banjo, a piano and a couple of ukuleles in the house, strings are always being played, when they aren’t being replaced or tuned that is. As the harpist in the family I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time tuning.

We each have our preferred instrument. My son will be blasting Hendrix from his room, amp turned up all the way. My daughter accompanies her singing with the piano or guitar. Mr swaps between various guitars and banjo, playing blues, jazz or folk, before picking up the violin to play some Bach. I’ll play some simple folk tunes or minuets. Whatever the style of music being played, there is no doubt that it is the string family of instruments that holds dominion in our house.


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Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, composed in 1723, were first published in 1725. It must count as one of the most popular pieces of baroque music ever written. Often when music is this well known, familiarity means that we forget to listen. This version with Midori Seiler and Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin,is the most original, beautiful and captivating performance I know. It is like hearing the piece for the first time and Seiler in particular, plays sublimely, even when being turned upside down!

Violin Masters “Two Gentlemen of Cremona” is a short documentary about the two greatest violin makers Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu. They both trained in the violin workshop of Nicolo Amati in Cremona. Their rivalry continues to this day with both having their admirers among the world’s foremost violinists. Experts suggest that Stradivarius is easier to play while Guarneri takes more effort but Guarneri are also said to be deeper in tone.


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Joshua Bell is one of the most respected violinists in the world today, with people willing to undergo severe, in the words of Leonard Cohen, ‘financial and geographical inconvenience’ to see him play. In 2007 Bell swapped the concert hall platform for a busker’s pitch in a subway station, in an experiment to see if he would command he same focus of attention. This illustrates Rhetoric, Aristotle’s treatise on the three pillars in the art of persuasion: reason, reputation and emotion.

World renowned physicist, Albert Einstein was also an enthusiastic violinist. He was taught to play from an early age but only truly feel in love with he violin when at the age of 13 he discovered the music of Mozart. “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” he once said. “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” His friend “Janos Plesch, wrote of his playing “There are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling”. Judge for yourself, with this extremely rare recording of Einstein playing Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat. Update: Turns out this is a hoax. My fault for not reading YouTube comments for the sake of my sanity. The violinist you are hearing is Carl Flesch. I am leaving this here to remind me that just because you want something to be true, doesn’t make it so (h/t to Brock Rob)


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The Standard Model of particle physics describes the fundamental building blocks that make up the universe and the four forces that control them, pretty well, except for gravity. String theory seeks to bring everything together by proposing that all of the different fundamental particles of the Standard Model are just different manifestations of one basic object: a string. Dr. Michio Kaku, is a theoretical physicist, Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York and co-founder of field string theory. Here he explains that the laws of physics are nothing but the laws of harmony, that chemistry is the melody in a universe that is no more than a symphony of vibrating strings.

For more detail, you can’t beat string theorist Brian Greene. Here he explains in a clear, understandable and entertaining twenty minute TED Talk, how our understanding of the universe has evolved from Einstein’s notions of gravity and space-time to superstring theory and beyond.

That simply by plucking, hitting or otherwise vibrating a string should result in such depth of feeling, such soaring emotion, has long fascinated me. This short piece of slow-motion film shows the simple mechanics in mesmerising detail.

Here is, to me at least, the universe in a single piece of music. The wonderful Maxim Vengerov playing Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, surely one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written for violin, played by the master.

 


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Jenny Winder

Jenny Winder is a British science writer for SEN - the Space Exploration Network,  specialising in astronomy, physics and space exploration.

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