Music, mathematics and the experience of Reality

“Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.”
― Douglas Adams

“Music has been reported to evoke the full range of human emotion: from sad, nostalgic, and tense, to happy, relaxed, calm, and joyous. Correspondingly, neuroimaging studies have shown that music can activate the brain areas typically associated with emotions: the deep brain structures that are part of the limbic system like the amygdala and the hippocampus as well as the pathways that transmit dopamine (for pleasure associated with music-listening). The relationship between music-listening and the dopaminergic pathway is also behind the “chills” that many people report experiencing during music-listening. Chills are physiological sensations, like the hairs getting raised on your arm, and the experience of “shivers down your spine” that accompany intense, peak emotional experiences.” (, n.d.)

Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Ravi Shankar, Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Beetles and other great musicians have created works that transport us to realms of consciousness that mere words cannot. We know from neuroscience that music activates the brain areas associated with feelings, but the feelings that certain music evokes in us have a quality that is otherworldly and transcendental. There is magic in music.

Music that moves us has pattern and structure and movement and timing. “There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” — Pythagoras. “Counting, rhythm, scales, intervals, patterns, symbols, harmonies, time signatures, overtones, tone, pitch. The notations of composers and sounds made by musicians are connected to mathematics. The next time you hear or play classical, rock, folk, religious, ceremonial, jazz, opera, pop, or contemporary types of music, think of what mathematics and music have in common and how mathematics is used to create the music you enjoy.”[i] There are numerous examples of the connection between music and mathematics on the American Mathematical Society’s web site The genius of Beethoven and the underlying mathematical structure of his Moonlight Sonata is beautifully explained in this TED talk:

Both music and mathematics are abstractions they cannot be objectified, yet they impact us in real ways. Their effect on us reveals aspects of our selves that are non-physical and beyond the reach of our intellect, some call this our spiritual self or our soul. William James, the pioneering psychologist and philosopher, describes this other aspect of our being thus “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question — for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”[ii]

The effect that music has on us might be because music, in William James’ terms, is the “requisite stimulus” that connects us to this other consciousness that is so “discontinuous with ordinary consciousness”.

Lorenzo Candelaria[iii], professor of music history and literature, at The University of Texas, writes

 “Painting, sculpture, and architecture might spur us toward holiness, but none can unite us quite like music. This is particularly true of singing — an art that invites group participation and can often arise spontaneously around a shared sentiment and a decent tune.”

Music plays a central communal role in every culture. Music is performed in churches, in mosques and in temples, because it entrains separate minds into producing a singular, powerful experience. A group of individuals become one. It becomes a spiritual experience, for many.

“Without music life would be a mistake”, Nietzsche on the Power of Music

This I believe:

  1. Among all modes of expressing human feelings music is unique in its ability to entrain minds into producing a singular experience. The oneness of life that so eludes our senses can be experienced through music.

[i] (American Mathematical Society, n.d.)

[ii] (Brain Pickings, n.d.)

[iii] (, n.d.)


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