Listen! You’ll Hear It! (Reductionism Fails)

There is a school of thought that says physics is the ultimate reality; that everything reduces to subatomic particles mindlessly subject to natural law.

The story is told—I don’t remember where I heard it—of two young women sitting in the front row of a concert hall, holding the score for the music the orchestra was about to play. The conductor saw them, and he stepped off the podium, leaned over, and whispered to them, “You will not find it in there.”

I was a professional musician earlier in my career, and in the course of my studies I learned enough music theory to be able to describe music mathematically. I’ve studied some acoustics, and I understand how to describe music in terms of pressure oscillations in the air. But there is something to music—the “it” of which that conductor was speaking—that is not to be found in vibrations, in mathematics, or even in the score.

Listen to Chopin. Listen to Coltrane. Listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash. In it you will hear reductionism’s rebuttal.


  1. Holly Wilson

    The point is well taken. There is something subjective about the experience of music that cannot be found in the score or the mathematics of music. Music touches us and inspires us, soothes us, and excites us. It moves us to great things. There is nothing in the score that says that.

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