A Language for the Exhilaration of Being Alive: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Music and the Universe


“Nowhere is the joy of existence so apparent as in music… Intelligent life-forms have created a multitude of sounds that express their exhilaration at being alive.”


A Language for the Exhilaration of Being Alive: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Music and the Universe

“Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” Ronald Johnson wrote in his stunning 1980 prose poem about music and the mind. This may be why music so moves and rearranges and harmonizes us, why in it we become most fully ourselves — “atoms with consciousness,” axons with feeling. When music courses through us, we are reminded that the mind and the body are one, and that the body — like music, like feeling, like the universe itself — is made of matter and time. It may even be that music is the language of time, mathematics its alphabet; that Margaret Fuller was right when she insisted two centuries ago that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics”; that, as the cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander observed in our own century, “it is less about music being scientific and more about the universe being musical.”

These are the things that Alan Lightman (poet physicist) explores through his conceptual masterpiece Mr g.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a symphony. Prints available.

Through his protagonist — the young creator Mr. g, bored and unsure of himself (“unlimited possibilities bring unlimited indecision”) as he spins a baby universe out of the Void while his aunt and uncle watch on with approving, critical, and sage pronouncements — Alan envisions the realities, as theorized by our current science, of how the universe began, punctuating them with fundaments of our humanity, none more elemental than the soul-resonance of music:

Music was created. Although the Void vibrated to the music of my thoughts for a long time, the entire universe of sounds was occurring simultaneously before the existence and development of time. It was as though a million thousand notes could be played at once. One note could be heard following the next, with arpeggios and glissades, in cascades. It was possible to hear melodies. The sound of rhythms or metrical phrases wrapping up time into beautiful sounds could be heard. There were also offbeat syncopations and duples. We moved on through the Void [we]We were captivated by the most sublime sounds: the melodic, rapturous and tender sounds of The Void.

As Mr. g proceeds with his rapturous experiment, most of the music he makes follows a Pythagorean scale, because “chords based on these scales were pleasing to hear,” but he also tinkers with asymmetrical and nonharmonic ratios, which “also produced beautiful music as long as two different notes were not sounded together.” (These, of course, are allusions to the Western and non-Western music traditions.) He wrote:

We were swept up in the music at every turn, in every location. The music would sometimes pour forth in ferocious swells. Sometimes, the music moved in slow, gentle steps. As if past parcels of emptyness had held on to music, it clung onto our bodies. Music became part of us. Although I created the music originally, music now creates. Music lifts, remakes and forms a totality of being.

One of William Blake’s paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. Prints available.

In consonance with philosopher Susanne Langer’s lovely formulation of music as “our myth of the inner life,” he adds:

Nowhere is the joy of existence so apparent as in music… Intelligent life-forms have created a multitude of sounds that express their exhilaration at being alive.

At the 2022 Universe in Verse, I invited Alan — a passionate pianist himself — to reflect on the personal and universal power of music and its abiding relationship to physics before reading an excerpt from Robert Johnson’s epic poem:

Two realms exist when I am sitting down at the piano: my conscious and unconscious. The conscious realm is one in which I think about the notes I’m going to play, and the timing and the rhythm and the intensity; and the unconscious is when I just let go and float with the sound. Music is both the expression of scientific discipline and unrestricted flight.

Complement with violinist Natalie Hodges on the poetic science of feeling in sound and composer Caroline Shaw’s transcendent musical inspiriting of classic poetry, then revisit Alan Lightman on time and the antidote to our existential anxiety.


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