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Hearing Blue and Yellow Together

November 25, 2015


 “I often think in music.” -Albert Einstein
Have you ever thought about a musical way of thinking? 

If we tune ourselves to its power, music can open up new ways of perceiving the world and central truths of faith.


Plato argued that, “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul…” The right musical education, he believed, makes one receptive to truth and goodness and a “friend” of reason—it tunes the soul to appreciate certain dimensions of reality. According to Aristotle, music is crucial for a good education because of its power to cultivate intuition—a grasp of first principles.
We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Einstein was an amateur pianist and violinist.  In fact, he once said, "The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception."

This “musical perception”—or musical way of thinking—can help us explore ideas in different ways than what is possible through words, propositional logic or eyesight alone. For example, music helped Einstein overcome a visual way of conceiving space and time. 


 Visual ways of thinking lead to a perception of space in which two different things are mutually exclusive. Our eyes don’t allow us to see two things in the same space at the same time. Cover yellow paint with blue paint and you’ll either see blue (covering over the yellow) or green. Visual perception cannot distinguish both yellow and blue as distinct in the same place and time.


Musical perception is different. As classical pianist and theologian Jeremy Begbie writes,


If I play a note on the piano—say, middle C—the note fills the whole of my heard ‘space.’ I cannot identify some zone where the note is and somewhere it is not. … If I play a second note ... along with middle C, that second note also fills the whole of my heard space. Yet I hear it as distinct. … Here is a kind of space which is not the space of mutual exclusion, but … which allows for overlapping and interpenetration.

Just as musical perception helped Einstein think in different ways about physics, so too can it open up for us fresh ways of contemplating insights of faith. For instance, Christians hold that two natures—human and divine—are both fully present in Jesus Christ. They also confess that three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—mutually interpenetrate one another perfectly in the Godhead. Begbie suggests that we might “resonate” more deeply with these mysteries if we are sensitive to musical (rather than solely visual) ways of thinking.   
Sadly, too often today students are encouraged to avoid music in higher education unless they plan to pursue it as a career.  What Einstein held together modern education tears apart. Students receive intentional training in "science without intuition … knowledge without imagination …
math without music."
At the Millis Institute, we equip students to think not only logically and mathematically, but also musically.  We resonate with the conviction that music trains their intuition, enriches their thinking, and helps them see (and hear!) the world differently. 

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