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Hardcover | $40.00 Short | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780262027274 | 360 pp. | 8 x 9 in | 143 figures| July 2014
Ebook | $20.00 Short | ISBN: 9780262324373 | 360 pp. | 143 figures| July 2014
About MIT Press Ebooks

Essential Info

  • Sound Examples
  • Enhanced iBook Version
  • Interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican
  • Peter Pesic on the Nature podcast
  • Five minutes with the author

Music and the Making of Modern Science


In the natural science of ancient Greece, music formed the meeting place between numbers and perception; for the next two millennia, Pesic tells us in Music and the Making of Modern Science, “liberal education” connected music with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy within a fourfold study, the quadrivium. Peter Pesic argues provocatively that music has had a formative effect on the development of modern science—that music has been not just a charming accompaniment to thought but a conceptual force in its own right.

Pesic explores a series of episodes in which music influenced science, moments in which prior developments in music arguably affected subsequent aspects of natural science. He describes encounters between harmony and fifteenth-century cosmological controversies, between musical initiatives and irrational numbers, between vibrating bodies and the emergent electromagnetism. He offers lively accounts of how Newton applied the musical scale to define the colors in the spectrum; how Euler and others applied musical ideas to develop the wave theory of light; and how a harmonium prepared Max Planck to find a quantum theory that reengaged the mathematics of vibration. Taken together, these cases document the peculiar power of music—its autonomous force as a stream of experience, capable of stimulating insights different from those mediated by the verbal and the visual. An innovative e-book edition available for iOS devices will allow sound examples to be played by a touch and shows the score in a moving line.

About the Author

Peter Pesic is Tutor and Musician-in-Residence at St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He is the author of Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science; Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature; Abel’s Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability; and Sky in a Bottle, all published by the MIT Press.


“In this magnificent book, trotting from Pythagoras to Max Planck and beyond, Pesic shows us again and again how music informed innovation, and he offers illuminating new insights into nearly three millennia of scientific developments. Pesic’s rigorous analysis of source material allows him to confidently credit music for its critical role in the innovations of Johannes Kepler’s astronomy, Leonhard Euler’s topology, and Planck’s quantized energy. It is a testament to Pesic’s quiver of knowledge that he can so thoroughly examine the work of so many polymaths.”—Alexandra Hui, Physics Today
“This is a well-argued and well-illustrated text that should be of especial interest to students and scholars (and indeed anyone) with a background in the mathematical and physical sciences or their histories and who are intrigued by the book’s provocative title.”—Isis
“There is very much to admire in this challenging, thought-provoking and beautifully illustrated book. There is a digital version of the text which allows many of the musical examples to be experienced directly. Many readers will rejoice in these rich accounts of the choreography of music and science - and perhaps see it as evidence not of a one-way street, but as the two-way traffic that connects music and science in history.”—Times Literary Supplement


“This is a deeply learned and splendidly written book, which stakes out an exciting path through the history of science. With unique erudition and breadth of vision, Peter Pesic uncovers the extent to which modern physics has been guided by the ancient idea of a world harmony governed by mathematics. Here sound and musical consonance—all too often treated as minor areas of study—emerge as crucial phenomena driving science toward major discoveries.”
Daniel Heller-Roazen, Arthur W. Marks '19 Professor of Comparative Literature and the Council of the Humanities, Princeton University, and author of The Fifth Hammer: Pythagoras and the Disharmony of the World
“Scientists are embedded in material and social culture, and this has shaped their knowledge and practices. The recent turn to the senses and the emergence of 'sound studies' reminds us that scientists, too, utilize many senses and are embedded in many sonic cultures. In this important and provocative book, Peter Pesic traces in myriad ways and with many examples how throughout history, science and scientists have utilized their knowledge of music and sonic experiences to provide key insights into our understanding of the natural world.”
Trevor Pinch, Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University, and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies
“Mathematics and Music! The most glaring possible opposites of human thought!" Helmholtz’s exclamation in 1857 may still ring true to our ears. But after reading Peter Pesic’s brilliant study, no one will be able to make such claims in good faith anymore. In a fascinating exploration of philosophers and scientists from Plato to Planck, from Heraclitus to Heisenberg, Pesic’s magisterial book rediscovers the multifaceted and age-old connections between musical thought and the natural world. In eighteen lucid vignettes Pesic explores the important role music played in key moments in the history of scientific thought: the establishment of irrational numbers, planetary motion, optics, electromagnetism, and quantum physics. Pesic is as fine a musician as he is a historian of science. He nimbly demonstrates how music has served throughout the ages as a linchpin bridging sensus and ratio, the perceptual world and the realm of numbers, and reconnects the spheres of nature and culture, as spheres that were never truly separated.”
Alexander Rehding, Fanny Peabody Professor of Music, Harvard University; author of Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought; and co-editor of Music Theory and Natural Order from the Renaissance to the Early Twentieth Century


Winner, 2014 American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE Award) in Music & the Performing Arts, presented by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers