Category Archives: Music

Double blind testing comes to music — how much did you overpay for that Strad?

Today the New York Times  reported that a Stradivarius cello was sold for north of 6 million.  Was it a ripoff?  According to the following article in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol. 109 pp. 764 – 769 ’12) it probably was.   It has long been claimed that a pro can tell a new violin from an old within a minute (according to two ‘experts’).  In the absence of evidence, theory fluorishes.  Explanations for the superiority of the violins and cellos made by the old masters (Stradivarius, Guarneri) abound.  These include

l. properties of the varnish

2. effects of the Little Ice Age on violin wood

3. Differences in the relative densities of early and late growth layers in wood

4. Chemical treamtnets of the wood

5. Plate tuning methods (whatever that is)

6. Spectral balance of the radiated sound

The paper gives references for all 6 should you like theorizing, but wait until you see what actually happened before you look.

So at the September 2010 International Violin Competition in Indianapolis — the home of one of the great  University music departments in the country, or anywhere, the authors decided to actually check out the superiority of Strads and Guarneris  They studied 21 violinists, 19 professional,  ranging in age from 20 – 65, playing for 15 – 61 years.  The prices of the violins they owned  ranged from  $1,800 to 10 million.  4 violinists were contestants, 2  the were jurors in the competition, and most of the rest were from the Indianapolis symphony.

The violinists were told that they were going to decide which instrument was the best, and that 1 of the 6 was a Strad (actually there were 2 Strads and a Guarneri among the 6, the rest being new instruments).   So how in the world did they blind the musicians?  The 3 new violins were at most a few years old.  It would be obvious which was new and which wasn’t just  from looking.  The authors put welder’s goggles on the violinists, and a dab of scent under the chin rest of the violins to make them all smell the same.

The violinists were given a pair of violins (one new, one old) and asked to choose which was best.   They used their own bows (the price of bows is another story).  There were 9 possible new/old pairs of violins. All 21 violinists were asked to chose the instrument they preferred from each pair (21 * 9 = 189)   They chose the new violin 112/189 times and the Strad or the Guarneri only 77/189 times.  The aggregate market value of the 3 new violins was 100,000 (so they were hardly cheap instruments, and had been selected by the authors for their high quality), but that of the old ones was 10,000,000.

There’s a lot more but you get the idea.  It’s going to be interesting to see the reactions of the 7 or so string players I play with on a fairly regular basis (I xeroxed the paper for them).


Only 5 singing days left until Christmas

This is non-scientific post.   The Messiah is one of the glories of Western civilization.  It’s a shame that it only gets performed this time of year.  Last night we went to a community Messiah sing in a large beautiful old church.  Lots of the people I play with were in the orchestra.  Large numbers of the audience clearly knew how to sing.  There was a professional conductor and 4 soloists.  Before starting out he informed the assembled multitudes that this was not going to be the definitive performance, and we might have to stop if we got lost (which happened once).

We’d been to similar Messiah sings in a friend’s home with may be 15 singers in years past. It was great being in the midst of the voices, but it was nothing like last night.  We didn’t sing, but sat with the 40 or so Sopranos.  To our left were the about same number of altos, and in one of the naves were the tenors (to our right), opposite them in the other nave were the basses.  The church had a very fine organ and the orchestra had about 20 players.  They used the Mozart orchestration of the Messiah which had wind instruments that didn’t exist when Handel was writing.

I write this to urge you to go to a Messiah sing in your area, if  one’s available.  It is a fabulous experience to sit in the middle of all the voices and hear the counterpoint build up around you, as one set of voices after another takes up a phrase.  40 altos bringing in a phrase is something else.  You are  totally immersed in the glorious sound which is all around you.  It is a far more intense experience than sitting in an audience and having the choir and orchestra come at you in one direction.  It’s probably better if you can sing, but you don’t need to.  On an intellectual level, it’s far easier to understand the counterpoint when each voice is coming at you from a different direction.  The neurologist in me has to tell you that your ability to do this depends on discriminating differences in sound arrival times in your two ears at the microSecond level.

As a chamber musician, I get this something like this playing with friends, but a Messiah sing is a completely different order of magnitude.  My string playing friends tell me that this is why they play in orchestras, suffering the egos of conductors, the rehearsals, the shlepping of their instruments, etc. etc.  — the experience of the music is quite different when it’s all around you.

When we were raising out kids in Montana, they heard the Messiah at home a lot.  When we’d  drive past sheep in the field, they’d start singing “O We Like Sheep”, because that’s what they thought it meant, and they liked sheep.

Merry Christmas to all

Music and Weddings

Back from the wedding of one of the violinists I play chamber music with.  Coupled with a graduation 2 weeks ago and a craft festival last week, this means not much Anslyn && Dougherty got read (or anything else).  I will say, after getting through 100 pages or so, that A&&D  reads like a novel, is extremely fascinating, well paced and extremely clear for the most part.  It’s like being rip van Winkle and seeing answers to the many of the questions exercising organic chemists in the early 60s.  Clayden et. al. was an excellent prolog.

Two points about music making.  First, unlike the polls about who’s the greatest chemist etc. etc. amateur musicians know almost immediately if another amateur is better than they are.  By better, I don’t mean more technically adept, which you can get around by enough practice.  I mean sheer musicality.  We all have musicality to varying degrees, and I find interesting, that amateurs rarely disagree about who is ‘better’ than they are. Compare this the venom expended about sports teams or their individual players; It’s obvious to me that the newlywed violinist is lightyears better than I’ll ever be.  When we play, she’s the boss, despite being 43 years younger.

Second, playing music allows you to get to know what people are like (not just musically) in an incredibly short period of time. It’s nonverbal communication of a high order, mostly affective, and very intense.    I was invited to a cellist’s wedding despite having played music with her for only 5 -6 hours over the course of a chamber music festival.  A connection is formed that would take repeated social contacts over a much longer period of time, otherwise.  Just another reason to love music, and music making.

Apologies to Clausewitz — chamber music is the continuation of war by other means

The correct quote is “War is the continuation of diplomacy by other means”, but humans can screw up anything — even something as great as amateurs getting together to play chamber music.  This was brought to mind by an awful experience playing Brahms Trio in B major ( Opus 8 ) for piano, violin and cello.  The pianists among you know how difficult this work is technically, particularly the last movement which is fast, fast, fast, particularly for the left hand (the weak link for most pianists).  I’d never played with the violinist before (who was quite good), but it seemed to be a series of control gambits and oneupmanship.  I started the last movement at a pace I thought I could get through without major disaster, when the violinist announced that she didn’t think she could play it that slowly.   Yes, there really are people like that.  Fortunately, where I live there are plenty of people who are excellent musicians who are fun to play with.

A few random thoughts about amateur music-making  in no particular order.

I’m a retired neurologist and I’ve seen a lot of people kid themselves about how well they were thinking.  Also there’s the supposed loss of 10,000 neurons a day (a neurological urban myth, as no one has ever counted them).  Figure it out.  There are over 1 billion of them at least (the later the estimate, the larger the number).  There are 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 = 31,536,000 seconds in a year.  Preparing whole brain slides of sufficient clarity to visualize neurons is state of the art — although one of the founders of MicroSoft is trying.

So when I retired I was concerned that with my aged brain, I’d never get any better.  This isn’t true, at least for technique, as I’m able to play things with relative ease that were pretty much beyond me when I started it (Beethoven piano violin sonatas for example). Hopefully, this has improved my musicality.  It is a great thing to look at a passage and think how you want to play it instead how can you play it.   So if you’re in the midst of life, with spouse, kids, mortgage, career etc. etc. and there aren’t enough hours in the day to play let alone practice, take heart — when you retire you can pick it up where you left off and actually get better.

There is a huge difference between amateurs and professionals.  This was brought home at a chamber music festival for amateurs.  One of the coaches talked about effective practicing techniques.  She said she was tired of waiting until the fourth hour of practice to sound good on the violin.  I’ve never practiced 4 hours in a row in my life.  So in addition to having more talent than amateurs (they are self-selected after all), they work harder.  A fellow amateur said — an amateur practices until they can play it right, a professional practices until they can’t play it wrong.

Luysii’s first law of amateur musicianship:  there is always someone better than you and there is always someone worse.

Corollary: be nice to those worse than you so someone better will be nice to you.

Along these lines, amateur musicians instinctively know where they stand in the pecking order of musicality and talent.  It really doesn’t matter if the musician is out of shape, the musicality shows through.  One of the Jazz bandleaders (I think it was Artie Shaw) had people trying out just play scales.  It was enough for him.  Age makes no difference to the determination of who is better.

Most pianists don’t play a lot of pianos, unless they’re buying one.  I recently had occasion to play a brand new Yamaha 7 foot grand — so new the felt hammers didn’t have string indentations.  It was very good, at least as good as a Steinway (the new ones anyway).  Don’t dismiss Yamahas when looking.

Don’t be afraid to ask someone a lot better to play with you.  One violinist I play with is a conservatory graduate.  I think she’s slumming, but this has now gone on for several years, so she must be getting something out of it.  Needless to say, I practice hard whatever we’re going to play before she comes over.  A friend thought it might be that conservatory types learn how to be soloists or orchestra members and actually don’t get exposed to chamber music.

Bell’s brilliance and the hedonism of understanding


If you’re coming here from FARK.COM and wonder what this is all about, start reading two posts back “”.  You don’t have to know any physics or math to do so (but it helps, of course)

Bell did most of his work on quantum mechanics (QM) behind everyone’s back.  His day job was accelerator design and particle physics at the European center for such things (CERN).  He was no more satisfied with quantum mechanics than Einstein.  In the 60s the attitude toward the fundamentals behind QM was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Think”.  This persisted for decades and years later he made sure that anyone wanting to actually attempt an experiment testing his inequalities had a secure position before he’d encourage them.

In the 50’s David Bohm had developed a theory with hidden variables which explained the results of QM perfectly.  Unfortunately, it relied on something called a pilot wave (which you couldn’t measure).  Even worse the pilot wave was non-local affecting everything everywhere at once.  Worse than that, the great mathematician von Neumann had proved that a hidden variable was impossible (mathematically).  So Bell had the guts to decide that one of them had to be wrong, and read both papers (the very definition of Chutzpah).   For those organic chemists in your 30s, imagine that you decided that the Woodward Hoffmann rules were wrong.  Clearly, something you’d have to work on out of sight.

So Bell reads von Neumann’s proof and finds that it’s wrong.  He doesn’t like the nonlocality of Bohm’s theory either, so what to do. Follow the implications of a hidden variable theory of QM with locality.  This is how he came up with his inequalities.  To do so he had to know a good deal of QM and exactly what its predictions would be for various orientations of the polarizing beam splitters (PBSs) — see the previous two posts if you’re foggy about what PBSs do.  Not only that, but he had to conceive a type of experiment which no one at the time had any clue how to do.  A brilliant, brilliant man, and a great pleasure to finally understand what he did (thanks to Zeilinger).

You’ll have to make your own peace with the implications of entanglement, nonlocality, lack of hidden variables, etc. etc.  Bohr didn’t –” For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”  Feynman didn’t — “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”.  There are a number of ways to make the world QM describes as weird as possible.  No hidden variables means that the moon isn’t there unless you look at it (measure it), or that a pretty girl isn’t pretty until you look at her. Then there is Schrodinger’s cat (see  Chemists have long known (and ignored) the fact that electrons in atoms can’t have anything like a classical trajectory.  Why?  How would any electron with a quantum number of 2 or more get past a node (where it is never found)?

After all these years, finally understanding the inequalities was really pleasant, so pleasant in fact that I began thinking about why this was. One reason of course was that I’d read a lot about it and never understood what was going on.  That’s simply getting to the top of an intellectual mountain.

More importantly, I think a lot of the pleasure comes from the completeness of the understanding.  You never understand music, literature or art anything like this.  Playing Mozart or Bach gives me great pleasure, but I’ve never felt  that I completely understood what is going on, even though there certainly is an esthetic kick to it.  I’m not sure anyone does, but if they did, would the pleasure of it be of the same kind?  The stuff that seems to most interest us, is stuff we don’t fully understand.  Interest isn’t the same as pleasure, but trying to figure music out is enjoyable. Leonard Bernstein said something to the effect that if you could capture Beethoven in words you wouldn’t need Beethoven.

Even though we understand a lot about organic chemistry, I don’t think we’re close to understanding it deeply in this sense.  Perhaps that’s why it is so fascinating.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all ! ! !

Playing Beethoven with Heisenberg

Yes, I did that last week at ‘band camp for adults’.  Along with an excellent violinist I’ve played with for years, the three of us read Beethoven’s second piano trio (Opus 1, #2) with Heisenberg’s son Jochem (who, interestingly enough, is a retired physics professor).  He is an excellent cellist who knows the literature cold.  The violinist and I later agreed that we have rarely played worse.  Oh well.

Later that evening, several of us had the pleasure of discussing quantum mechanics with him. He didn’t disagree with my idea that the node in the 2S orbital (where no electron is ever found) despite finding the electron on either side of the node, forces us to give up the idea of electron trajectory (aromatic ring currents be damned).   He pretty much seemed to agree with the Copenhagen interpretation — macroscopic concepts just don’t apply to the quantum world, and language trips us up.

A chemical physicist in the the discussion, for some reason went on an on about just how useless he found QM in his work.  It can’t be that bad if computational chemists can use it to predict electron density and shielding (and chemical shifts) of a given structure.  What a jerk. This is the same guy (but a first rate violinist) who tried to impress us all with how much money he had 2 years ago, by mentioning that the $2000 worth of wine he bought at one pop wouldn’t fit into his station wagon.  Once a cloaca, always a cloaca.

I didn’t get the assigned reading (see the last post) done at all.  Instead I plowed through the first 100 or so pages of “Representations and Characters of Groups” by James and Liebeck. Interestingly, one of the pros coaching the amateurs is using Lie groups and topology in his attempts (as a prof in a music department) to figure out how various keys and harmonics are related to each other.  Even though Lie groups are continuous, and nothing is more discrete than the notes of a scale, embedding the musical scale on the surface of a torus seems to give insight.  As is typical of the crew that goes to amateur chamber music festivals there was a mathematician around (former department chair) we could consult.  Apparently representation theory helps explain the deep structure of groups, which of course is related to symmetry, which is related to the spectra of symmetric molecules, and chapter #32 (the last in the book pp. 367 –> ) is titled “An application of representation theory to molecular vibration”.

It took all week to get the (mathematical) notation straight.  One irritating thing was that there were at least  3 functions of two operands used

l. (vector, group) –> vector

2. (group, group) –> group

3. (scalar, vector) –>  vector

But none of the functions were given names, so that when the operation was performed the operands were just juxtaposed, and you were supposed to figure out the what was being done just by context.   In addition, the entities were given very similar names  FG-Module, FG etc.  Sometimes the same name stood for two different things, FG could be the group vector space over F or it could be the group algebra of G over F.  Again the context was crucial.  A few different names would have been helpful. It shouldn’t have taken me all week to see what was going on. 

So the coach and I cried on the shoulder of the mathematician (a cellist), who said — read the definitions very carefully boys.  He’d been a physicist before becoming a mathematician and noted that physicists always used the same symbols for important entities — m is always mass, f is always force etc., etc.  Not so in mathematics, where the symbols for the same entity vary from paper to paper, book to book.   He thought that mathematicians had invented so many things that they’d run out of letters. 

Well, enough.  The stack of incompletely read journals measured 4.5 inches, and it’s time to see what the research community has been up to.

Have a good week

Off to band camp for adults. I’ll be back 23 Aug.  I’ve got 2 reading assignments thanks to Yggdrasil and Wavefunction, and also a book reference from Wavefunction from years ago, which I’m going to try to get through “Molecular Driving Forces” as I lay out on the dock and listen to the afternoon string master classes.  It’s a tough life but someone has to do it.

The Hurricane season remains incredibly quiet with 3 named storms, only one of which was a hurricane, and one of which barely made it into the tropical storm category with top winds of 40 mph, and all of this for less than 24 hours.  Also looking at accuweather as of 12;20 PM EST, nothing in the North Atlantic is even being investigated as possibly having the potential of turning into a tropical depression.

He who lives by the hurricane, dies by the hurricane, or so I thought. Not so.  This AM the NYTimes has a front page article (complete with scary pictures) about the unusual weather in Chicago, Russia and Pakistan as signs of global warming.  I couldn’t bring myself to read the article to see if (as predicted earlier) the ABSENCE of hurricanes would be blamed on global warming.

Derek says next week’s In the Pipeline won’t be as depressing (how could it be?).  Have a good week.

Off to Band Camp for Adults

Thanks for all the looks at the site and the comments (none of which would have occurred without the referrals by Derek Lowe and Megan McArdle). I’ll be at a weeklong adult amateur chamber music festival, which the grandchild of one of the participants calls, with the usual clarity of childhood — band camp for adults.

I’ll be looking at comments and responding to them until the 23rd at noon and be back on the 30th.

For the musically inclined — find and listen to a Cello concerto written by a young Russian Cellist — Nina Kotova. It’s quite dark without being dissonant and very beautiful and tonal. I’m doing this partially out of guilt because I bought the CD for under 2 bucks. I’d love to hear what she’d do with a Piano Cello sonata I wrote years ago.

She’s a former model, which may explain the sultry photo and the decolletage on the CD cover. But this sort of thing seems to be required of any female classical musician. We had the pleasure of listening to Hillary Hahn when she was a cute frisky teenager years ago. Look at her CD covers now. Yo Yo Ma has never appeared in a Speedo to my knowledge. It just doesn’t seem right.

I posted the following on the “Skeptical Chymist” before going off last year about this time. It’s written for chemists. Enjoy

Chemiotics: Apologies to Borodin
Posted on behalf of Retread

Can you picture yourself spending a week with a group of people who can’t tell an Angstrom from arugula, some of whom are wary of all “chemicals”. Many highly analytic types (mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists, electrical engineers and even chemists) do just that and enjoy it immensely. I speak of adult amateur chamber music festivals (or ‘band camp for adults’ as one of my friend’s grandkids calls them). After 35 years of them, I only met the 5th chemist this year. They are vastly outnumbered by the other analytics, particularly mathematicians and physicists.

Participants are highly educated for the most part, but the most talented cellist this year was a moving-company man who hauls furniture around for a living, and I still remember playing with a marvellous 300-pound violist years ago who was a jail matron.

If you were an aspiring organic chemist in the early 60s, the bible was “Mechanism and Structure in Organic Chemistry” by Edwin S. Gould, a physical chemist amazingly enough. He also happens to be an excellent violinist and I had the pleasure of playing with him a few years ago. He’s still active in research although he received his PhD from UCLA in 1950. Who says chemicals are toxic!?

Occasionally the two cultures do clash, and a polymer chemist friend is driven to distraction by a gentle soul who is quite certain that “chemicals” are a very bad thing. For the most part, everyone gets along. Despite the very different mindsets, all of us became very interested in music early on, long before any academic or life choices were made.

So, are the analytic types soulless automatons producing mechanically perfect music which is emotionally dead? Are the touchy-feely types sloppy technically and histrionic musically? A double-blind study would be possible, but I think both groups play pretty much the same (less well than we’d all like, but with the same spirit and love of music).

I wonder why chemists are so outnumbered in this group? It’s been downhill ever since Alexander Borodin. Perhaps a larger sample is needed. Any thoughts?