Painting, Music, and Science



Painting, Music, and Science



You might embark on a self-improving trip to London and take in the Science Museum and the National Gallery. You would probably not experience any affinity between the two: the museum deals with science while the gallery exhibits art. There was no art in the science museum (except maybe some diagrams and illustrations) and there was no science in the art gallery (except maybe some portraits of scientists). But I think this would be a superficial reaction based on taxonomic conventions and preconceptions; actually there is much more science in an art gallery than one might naively suppose. Permit me then to make some hackneyed observations under this head, with no pretense at completeness or depth (this is art history 101).

The discovery of perspective was a scientific breakthrough and it changed the shape of artistic depiction. Artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo were interested in anatomy that required scientific enquiry, even dissection. The production and selection of paints, brushes, and canvas involved scientific expertise. Impressionism had roots in theories of visual perception. Cubism can be seen as a reflection of scientific views of matter. Surrealism drew on the (alleged) science of psychoanalysis. The shift from religious iconography, devotional and mythical, to realistic depictions of nature, descriptive and secular, was of a piece with a new scientific attitude to the world. Accuracy replaced pious evocation. Pictures of animals in books of natural history are not so far from pictures of people in natural settings. A still life is precisely a representation of a piece of nature without regard to any spiritual meaning it might have. So when you gaze at a painting in an art gallery you are seeing it through prisms of science, because science is present in the worldview and practice of the painter—it is part of his or her culture. The painter was not much of a scientist when decorating churches with religious images, as the writer of ancient religious texts was not; but later painters adopted the stance of science in their work simply because they lived in a world permeated by science. The physical world is a subject of science and human visual perception is also a subject of scientific study. An artist is not cut off from these influences.

But I want to say something stronger—that painting of the realistic sort isa science.[1]The painter of nature is a scientist. This is because such painting requires careful attention to nature and a systematic attempt to depict it accurately. There are general principles at work here concerning background and foreground, light and shade, size and color constancy, the exact structure of a tree or building or face. The scientific illustrator has to have the same skills and aims, and we would not hesitate in classifying him as a scientist (scientists often illustrate their own books); the painter is not engaged on some completely different enterprise, though obviously there are differences of intention and execution. There is no sharp line at which a drawing stops being scientific and becomes artistic. The two are indissolubly connected. The use of scientific instruments in art confirms this point.[2]Depicting nature in oils is not so different from describing it in words—both are attempts at getting nature right. The artist is a student of the natural world who adopts the medium of painting to capture his object of interest. This natural world can include the human social world. In a broad sense the realistic painter is an anatomist—of the human body, to be sure, but also of the non-human environment. Truth and verisimilitude are the aim. Recurring patterns are recognized and recorded. Objective reality is respected and revered. The attitude is essentially scientific—not religious or anthropocentric or sophistical. The aim is to produce likeness—just as the scientist wants to describe reality as it is. Painting is about the eye and what it reveals, but science too is based on observation and what it tells us of reality. Both science and art are observational, grounded in the senses, not on a supposed source of divine revelation or the texts of an ancient authority. They attempt to capture nature as it presents itself. The painter is thus a physicist, botanist, and zoologist. She is also an empiricist, relying on her own unfiltered experience to construct accurate representations of the world (painting is not an a prioriscience). This may be pictorial physics (botany, zoology) not discursive physics, but it is still the study of the physical world. We might call it phenomenologicalphysics to register its dependence on the conscious perception of reality, as opposed to abstract theoretical cognitive physics. But phenomenology is a science too. I would even be willing to say that it is an experimental science, given that the painter tries out different methods of obtaining an accurate representation—and there is scientific progress in the art of painting. The scientific and artistic renaissances were aligned ventures. The history of art and the history of science are not insulated from each other.

The same can be said about other visual arts: photography, film, and architecture. These all contain a strong scientific component and often owe their origin to a scientific invention. Being an art form in no way precludes also being a science. Aesthetic value is not incompatible with scientific precision. The raw materials of these art forms are different, but they all involve elements of science: how paint adheres to canvas, the action of photographic plates, the technology of the moving image, the physical constraints of architectural construction. There is a scientific infrastructure. And the aims of these art forms are not so removed from scientific aims as institutional conventions might suggest: all are concerned with truth, accuracy, verisimilitude, understanding, and generality. Not in the same way, to be sure, and not exclusively (there is also the matter of beauty): but it is not that science and art are entirely separate domains of interest with no overlap or commonality.

What about music? Am I about to claim that music scientifically depicts observable reality too? And isn’t that very hard to believe? No, I am not about to claim that; but I am going to claim that it is based on another type of science, viz. mathematics. In fact, my claim, baldly stated, is that the musician (composer, performer) isa mathematician. Again, I will not go into elaborate detail about the grounds for saying this, but merely recite some fundamental facts about music.[3]Musical theory is a technical systematic field based around the notion of scales. A scale is a structure of pitch intervals divided into whole tones and semitones (though there is also atonal and microtonal music). This is defined mathematically with numbers assigned to the constituents of the structure (also letter names). One of the simplest scales is the pentatonic scale, which includes a subset of the notes of the major scale. Notes are grouped into octaves according to the frequency of the underlying sound wave. Essentially, musical notes are digitized products of a pitch continuum. The pitch relations are mathematically defined. For example, the so-called blue note is a flatted third or fifth added to the pentatonic scale—a lowered semitone. All music is based around these mathematical relations (hence Pythagoras’s interest in music). Different types of music use different scales, with Western music focusing on the major and minor scales (Eastern music uses other scales). So when you hear a piece of music you are hearing pitch relations that conform to a mathematical structure. If they didn’t, the music would make no sense. Music is made of what music theorists call “intervallic structure”.[4]You hear instances of this structure asmusic. So the conceptual foundation of music is the science of mathematics, which is a formal not an empirical science. A composer is in effect a mathematician of sound. I don’t think this is a controversial claim, but it implies that music is a science too—despite also being an art. This is as true for raucous rock n’ roll as for a Bach cantata. So if you visited the Albert Hall on your trip to London, you would have been immersed in science there too. You can’t get way from it.

In addition there is the technology and science that goes into constructing musical instruments, as well as recording studios, etc. All instruments have to be designed by scientific principles in order to produce sounds and to be durable. A guitar is as much a piece of technology as a microscope. Even the human voice is a technological contraption. A singer has to operate this instrument with scientific precision, and it can take years to get the right sound out of it. Music is not cut off from the world of physics and must respect its laws. A musical performance is an amalgam of mathematics and physics, as channeled through the human ear. A composer has to organize intervallic structure and physical instrumentation to produce a musical work of art—so he or she is doing the work of a mathematician and a physicist. Again, this is phenomenological mathematics and physics, not to be confused with the discursive studies pursued in obtaining a university degree in those subjects. It involves mathematical and physical know-how (which animals don’t have). This intuitive knowledge can be made explicit in music theory and physical theory, but it is still mathematical and physical in nature prior to such articulation. Music theory makes explicit what the ear already knows.

I can now return to a topic ignored in my discussion of pictorial art: the nature of abstract art. What are we to say of those paintings that spurn all attempts to model the natural world and revel purely in abstract forms? Well, there are different types of abstract art, but one form can be regarded as analogous to music—it is the study of mathematical structure as such. It uses the visual analogue of intervallic structure—the placing of lines at certain distances from each other (as pitch relations can also be spatially represented). So abstract art can incorporate science rather as music does—by playing with mathematical form. This is a kind of a priorivisual art, which would be beloved by rationalists (the artistic empiricist likes her art to faithfully copy visual impressions). Thus we have a prioriand a posterioriart: music and abstract art are the former, realistic naturalism the latter. In both cases the artist is beholden to science and might as well be declared a scientist herself (as well as an artist). The traditional classifications are arbitrary and misleading, since art is inextricably bound up with science. What the artist needs is knowledge, and that can include what we now call “science”. To put it differently, physics is more than what physicists study and mathematics is more than what mathematicians study (and the same is true for botany and zoology): these subjects are also studied by painters and musicians each in their characteristic way. The painter studies the physical world as it is seenand the musician studies the mathematical world as it is heard—phenomenological science in both cases. What we call “artists” and “scientists” are really close colleagues. Art galleries are also science museums. Just as novelists are scientists au fond(keen observers of nature), so too are painters and musicians. Granted they have other talents too, but let us not place them in a ghetto reserved for the scientifically illiterate or uninterested. Art is one form the scientific spirit can take.[5]


Colin McGinn

[1]This essay twins with my “Fiction, Fact, and Science”, which makes a similar claim about literature.

[2]The Hockney-Falco thesis is interesting in this connection: this is the claim that painterly realism was aided and abetted by the use of optical instruments such as the camera lucidaand concave mirrors, thus incorporating the science of optics into artistic practice. Fittingly, Hockney is a painter and Falco is a physicist.

[3]I am not an expert in music theory; what I offer here is just what I picked up when learning to play guitar. Still, it should suffice for present purposes.

[4]There is also rhythm–a temporal mathematical structure. We hear this rhythmic structure as much as we hear pitch structure. And notice how important recurring patterns are in music, rather like recurring patterns in nature. The same “laws” crop up in different particular sounds and we recognize their recurrence.

[5]You might object that I am using the words “science” or “scientific” very promiscuously. That is true and it is done with malice aforethought. I also count philosophy as a science, as well as psychology, economics, linguistics, mathematics, etc. I don’t think we should restrict the word to the so-called physical sciences. The honorific connotations of “science” should be spread more widely. And don’t ask me to define “science” beyond saying it is secular evidence-based logical thought (roughly). What matters is that particular activities should exhibit a commitment to scientific principles and values.


9 responses to “Painting, Music, and Science”

  1. says:

    That is instructive. One gets it. I used to read a lot of Morris Kline on the history of mathematics and on the more practical applications of math—pretty much in line with your observations. But anything, really, (with the possible exception Trump speeches) can be analyzed mathematically. Separation of variables, order and nature of dependency and all that. But the explanatory import is what’s at stake. That’s where science takes its turn. In any case, that was an even-more- than usually well-written piece.

    • I actually would like it to be widely read because it redraws lines in a way that I think is healthy and illuminating. Would Leonardo think there was a deep split in him between scientist and artist? After all, the term “scientist” didn’t even exist in his time, and I doubt that “artist” had the same connotation then as now.

  2. Giulio Katis says:

    Yes, well put. Art, music, science, mathematics are in essence creative acts, and typically start with an intuition that may take some time, effort, craft to make incarnate (each form of incarnation will have its own type of logic). The distinction between engineering and science is perhaps a sharper or more fundamental one than that between science and art.

  3. says:

    Kind of flubbed my point about Morris Kline—he had much to say about the arts and its (at least sometimes) relevance to mathematics. There is pure and applied mathematics and there is pure and applied science, with only partial cross-classification. Technology and the arts are the “sweet-spots” of that cross-classification. Philosophy has its own “sweet-spot” (that sounds a bit odd, but I’ll let it pass).

  4. says:

    You mentioned that you would wish for a wider circulation of your Post. Do authors in your league offer essays to such as the LRB, or the TLS, –or are they solicited? I’ve wondered about that.

    • Nearly always solicited and usually book reviews. You can send papers to journals of course. I thought my post might be of wider interest than a standard philosophy paper. Long time since I wrote for LRB and TLS.

  5. says:

    It’s their loss. Much less serious reviews of philosophy of late, in those particular publications. Fodor was a great favorite–you and he both had the proper literary panache. By the way, if you want to hear some serious percussion, check out Carlos Santana”s band on you-tube via 1970. Tanglewood.

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