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Inspired on this post: Who were some mathematicians who have a musical background? I want to now ask if there were any famous physicists who had a particular musical background.

Looking in Google I just got modern names like Brian Cox or Brian May (from Queen), but are there famous historical physicists that had also received formal musical education?

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Classical education included music as one of the liberal arts since the times of Plato's Academy, see quadrivium, so most physicists had musical background until the end of 19th century. But there also seems to be something of a general appeal music has for physicists that continues into recent times, see Gold, Is it the mystery, or the structure, or the discipline?

Some prominent examples:

Heisenberg: "Werner Heisenberg was born in Würzburg, Germany, on December 5, 1901, and from birth, he seemed destined to become a concert pianist. With help from his mother, Anna, Werner was reading sheet music by age 4 and conquering the masterworks on the family's piano by the time he was 15. But Heisenberg's musical aspirations were slowly sabotaged by the family's book collection. His father, Albert, was a professor of Greek at the University of Munich, and Werner took a liking to rummaging through his dad's bookshelves. Before long, the young Heisenberg decided he preferred Archimedes to Mozart, and science replaced music as his passion."

Einstein:"It’s little known that Einstein was an accomplished violinist, and even less known that had he not pursued science, he said he would have been a musician... He confessed to thinking about science in terms of images and intuitions, often drawn directly from his experiences as a musician, only later converting these into logic, words and mathematics.".

Helmholtz:"Palestrina's music clearly caught Helmholtz's imagination. In his volume On the Sensations of Tone, he repeated the latest findings on the composer's alleged Protestant influences; for the Prussian scientist, they explained the clarity of Palestrina's style. His analysis of the Stabat mater was directed at giving this clarity some foundation in the composer's acute awareness of distortions in harmony. The basic idea was that a composer's knowledge of how to combine sounds would come forward in the music itself, even if there were no explicit rules and even if the rules that had been formulated through instruction would not account for the physiological conditions of hearing."

Huygens: "Like his father, Christiaan was a more than competent musician. But whereas Constantijn enjoyed concert performances and the social possibilities that they opened up, Christiaan’s interest in music was more theoretical. In common with many thinkers of the 17th century, he had his own ideas of how music should sound, and he devised a division of the octave into 31 carefully spaced notes that he calculated would both make for a pleasing sound and facilitate matters important to performing musicians, such as transposition between keys. Unlike most, however, he went further and had built for him a special harpsichord that demonstrated this system. Perhaps Christiaan’s feeling for music helped him to the realisation that, like sound, light too travels in a wavelike fashion."

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    $\begingroup$ Is it a coincidence that 3/4 of these were german (speaking)? $\endgroup$
    – SirHawrk
    Aug 9 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ @SirHawrk It is an after effect of the time period. In the first half of the twentiest century top physics research happened in Germany and most top physicists were German (speaking). $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Aug 9 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ As Heisenberg got better and better at the piano, his parents could see him get frustrated with playing it.. He could either play fast, but not know where he was in a composition, or he would stop to find his place but then lose tempo. $\endgroup$
    – BruceWayne
    Aug 11 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ @SirHawrk I can corroborate quarague's guess. To keep the size down, I was choosing personalities by prominence, so, for example, I picked Heisenberg over Hungarian-American Teller (from that time period). Similarly, 18th century physicists are missing because that was the time of mathematically digesting Newtonian mechanics. The more prominent "physicists" were mathematicians (Euler, D'Alambert, Lagrange), but the British Michell, Herschel, and Priestley were accomplished in music, Herschel even composed symphonies. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Aug 12 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold Funnily enough Teller studied in Germany and wrote his thesis in german so he would conform to the "(speaking)" part of my question. Thanks a lot tho for the context $\endgroup$
    – SirHawrk
    Aug 12 at 11:48
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Satyendra Nath Bose, an Indian physicist and polymath, is famous for having collaborated with Albert Einstein on his original work, which came to be called Bose-Einstein statistics. However, very few people know that Bose was gifted at playing the Esraj, an Indian stringed instrument similar to the violin. He often used to perform for his students and colleagues at Calcutta and Dhaka universities.

Bose playing Esraj

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  • $\begingroup$ Makes me curious if Bose and Einstein ever collaborated musically as well, then, since the above answer mentions he was a violinist himself. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinHilyard that's quite an interesting possibility. However, Bose spent about 2 years in Europe and not much is known about his personal interactions with Einstein. $\endgroup$ Aug 10 at 2:08
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Boltzmann was a trained classical pianist who was taught by no less than Anton Bruckner.

Boltzmann was well known for performing Liszt's piano transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies, large sections of which he could play without the sheet music to guide him.

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    $\begingroup$ Anybody who reaches the level necessary to play these transcriptions could also memorise them. It is a natural byproduct of studying music and practicing am instrument. If he didn’t play them from memory fully, it’s because he didn’t bother memorising the whole thing. My point being that the memorisation is not such an achievement given the rest and reads slightly anti-climactic when you put it at the end. $\endgroup$
    – 11684
    Aug 9 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ @11684 You're right. Memorising a piece is a direct consequence of learning a piece in the first piece. However, without continually reviewing ones repertoire those memories can fade. That's my personal experience. Pieces that I learned a few years ago at university now, more often than not, require reference to the sheet music if I haven't played them recently. Rereading my answer, you're right to point out that this point reads slightly anti-climactic when put at the end. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Aug 9 at 20:38
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William Herschel comes to mind, if you consider this polymath to be a physicist - he built telescopes, discovered infra-red radiation in sunlight, discovered Uranus, and more.

Recordings of his compositions are available.

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    $\begingroup$ Recordings of his compositions are available: I have a CD of his symphonies. (I find them vaguely Mozartian, and very pleasant if unremarkable. But that's no criticism, considering how much else he accomplished!) $\endgroup$
    – gidds
    Aug 9 at 12:26
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I'm not sure how far it really went, but Feynman was famous for his love of bongos and played them on many occasions: Richard Feynman Bongo Drums "Orange Juice" (YouTube).

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    $\begingroup$ .... but he really couldn't carry a tune. The Brazilians he played bongos with complained about him.... "o Americano otra vez"... $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 14:36
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Max Planck was a singer, pianist, organist, and cellist on the verge of studying music instead of physics. Apparently he had absolute pitch and even composed an operetta [2].

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Prof. J M A Danby ('Tony Danby'), physicist & mathematician and author of the well-known "Fundamentals of Celestial Mechanics" (1962 and later editions), with minor planet 3415 Danby named after him, was also in his earlier days a professional musician, in the mid-1950s first-chair oboist in one of the London orchestras among other musical positions.

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William Hershel has already been mentioned, but Caroline Lucretia Herschel (sister to William) was also a musician: a harpsichordist and singer. She made some of the first performances of William's musical work. Indeed it was through their musical collaborations that Caroline began to assist William in his astronomical work, eventually becoming an independent researcher and (arguably) the first professional female scientist.

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My favorite was Edward Teller. In the summer of 1972 he gave all 48 Bach Preludes and Fugues and got me interested in Baroque music. (I am now 80 and still trying to memorize the BWV1013 flute partita.)

In the engineering class, a student asked, "Dr. Teller, how small can you make a nuclear device?" He replied, "We don't advertise this, but we made some that didn't go off at all."

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Galileo Galilei not only had a musical background (his father was a professional musician and he became an accomplished lutenist himself) but he allegedly used his musical skills to measure time in his experiments about free fall. Therefore, Galileo's musical background played a crucial role on his discoveries in Physics.

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