Though Albert Einstein wasn’t a virtuoso violinist like Paganini, he was an avid music lover. The theoretical physicist enjoyed getting together with friends to read and play great pieces of classical music. He gained inspiration from the act of being musical.
Einstein has eluded to his observation that living a musical life provided the mental foundation, the fundamental headspace needed, for some of his best scientific and mathematical theories—those that changed our understanding of the way the world and cosmos work. As a violinist, I was told this story often as a child.
When asked about his theory of relativity, Einstein replied, “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.” Had he not performed music, he may not have developed the frame of mind to understand the universe.
Einstein is not alone in this. Music (and musical inventions) has paved the way for great innovation to occur in our world, technology, and minds.
While writing this article I spoke at length to music producer Darryl Neudorf, who provided an enormous amount of useful context. We agreed that one of the most fascinating examples of music influencing technology is the iPod.
The iPod was first unveiled about a month after the September 11 attacks in New York City. Steve Jobs called it a “breakthrough digital device,” explaining that “music is a part of everyone’s life, and because it’s a part of everyone’s life, it’s a very large target market all around the world. It knows no boundaries.”
While now we can see exactly where this was heading, the public and critics at the time were underwhelmed. They thought the iPod was too expensive and provided little actual value. As a 10-year-old my family wasn’t about to buy me a $400 mp3 player; instead, I received a $20 HitClip from Walgreens. When I accidentally left it outside during a Wisconsin rainstorm and discovered that it still worked, I was pretty impressed.
Despite mixed reviews and a lukewarm opening reception, the iPod gained support from people like Oprah. The features got better, compatibility with Windows improved, and BMW integrated it into their car stereo systems. Step by step people got hooked.
This was also an era in which Apple actually sold songs. By 2006, the iTunes store had sold 1 billion songs and over 80 million iPod devices. #thanksOprah
In 2007, Apple unveiled the iPhone, a combination of the iPod, a mobile phone, and an internet browsing device. All of the features, trials, and changes made to the iPod led to this moment, which in my view really changed music, even more than the iPod. That is, of course, evolution: we wouldn’t have gotten an iPhone without the iPod.
Eventually, even though the iPod sold hundreds of millions of units, it faded into the background. The iPhone replaced dozens of individual gadgets, such as maps and calculators and cameras and voice recording devices—all because of music.
Jobs knew music unites people. While this is a hunch, maybe he wanted to figure out all of the separate features that the iPhone would have before releasing it so that he could product test it without the pressure of selling a new style of phone. A sleek mp3 player has lower expectations. In fact, maybe the lukewarm reception was the best thing that could have happened to the iPod. There was nowhere to go but up.
Jobs tapped into the hearts and souls of people around the world. His development team invented the iPhone in stages, innovating the music industry and making billions of dollars along the way. Without music, I don’t think we would have arrived at anything like the iPhone. This unlikely and fascinating chain of events all stemmed from the observation that music is a universally powerful force.
Regarding technology more broadly, and where things are headed in the future, I work on projects at the nexus of blockchain and the music industry. Music can tremendously help inform blockchain as well. (If you’re interested in reading a summary about blockchain technology, click here.)
Most people familiar with blockchain know that it generally revolves around the idea of self organization. Instead of a “top-down” approach, in which one entity is in charge of making all decisions or one server holds all information in a centralized location, the knowledge, power, and data are stored in a decentralized fashion within a network of computers that all share responsibility for the keeping of that information.
Greg Meredith, President of RChain Cooperative (as well as musician and mathematician), often shares a somewhat Zen yet futuristic saying: “Relax, no one’s in control.”
His sentiment makes me think about music in general—specific styles like chamber music, jazz, jam sessions, and drum circles—in which people congregate to make something beautiful happen without receiving direction from an explicit leader, conductor, or musical director.
In the world of music, it’s common to find yourself performing with artists that do not speak the same (verbal) language. The entire group might be filled with players of different ethnicities. The audience members have paid good money to offer you their time and attention. What are you going to do?
While I’m not a coder, I do speak music, which offers us access to an advanced communication system during these types of performances. The architects of blockchains should study this as, in my view, they are aiming (at least in part) to design a computational tool that can function similarly to musicians on stage. When such moments work well it is truly astounding, even to the musicians themselves.
Some believe that you need to look at one another to perform together, or that you need to talk beforehand, read music on a music stand, rehearse for eight weeks leading up to the show—basically, plan everything in advance. Those methods do work; some shows require weeks or months of rehearsal. But there is another type of show that does not require such advanced planning. I have always been curious about how it works.
You don’t always need to look at those around you. Sometimes we communicate better when we close our eyes.
You don’t always need to agree on what will happen. Sometimes we perform better when we work out our musical differences in the moment.
You don’t always need to know what will happen next. Sometimes the most exciting and moving part of a show happens at the exact moment when you thought one thing was going to happen and another takes its place, with everyone on stage improvising.
I don’t believe these moments are the results of pure coincidence. We utilize our inner listening, deep communication skills, and peripheral readiness in order to pull such moments off.
When they occur it’s not just the audience feeling the effects. Musicians also cry, laugh, and freely breathe, sometimes for the first time in years.
Is this comes across as esoteric or vague, plenty of research backs up these ideas. In fact, the discovery of music might have served as the catalyst for the development of the human brain. Music could have been the thing to give us the ability to communicate, talk, form social networks, and barter. Ian Cross, Professor of Music and Science at Cambridge University, has said that music may be the most important thing that humans ever did.
The above lecture by Anita Collins shows that playing a musical instrument engages the entire brain, providing further evidence that human beings developed biologically, emotionally, and socially through the creation and propagation of music. Music coordinates brain regions in a way that no other activity can.
Scientific American published an article in 2006 that investigated why music has so much power over us as a species, as well as why that power never seems to fade away. This is exactly what Steve Jobs realized when he designed the iPod. As the article expresses, music is an inherent part of our biology; our brain has “a functional organization for music.”
With this proof of functional organization and a historical understanding of the role music played in our biological development as a species, it’s important that we use it to our best advantage as we develop our world, technology, and minds.
Special thanks to Darryl Neudorf.