UBM Tech
UBM Tech

Bach for Engineers

-October 02, 2013

It's long been known that music is good exercise for the brain, and there's no better workout program than the music of Johann Sebastian Bach! (1685-1750; your mileage may vary)

Wait! Before you say, "Pshaw, classical music's not for me," give Bach (and me) a chance. You may be surprised to discover what you've been missing.

I think that any intelligent person (and, as an EDN reader, you must be) has no excuse not to know the music of Bach. You probably know something of the work of Newton, Einstein, Fourier, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Tesla, Volta, Ampère, Ohm, Faraday, Maxwell, and so on. You need to add Bach to that list. Not because "art is good for you," but because his music is uniquely of such intellectual depth, as well as being intensely emotional and beautiful.

An endless litany of notables have been inspired by Bach's music. Not only other classical composers, but many jazz musicians, the Beatles, writers, artists, Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide fame) – in fact, read Adams's brilliant few paragraphs about Bach.

So, why is Bach for smart people (notice I didn't steal the "for Dummies" moniker)? Because, far more than any other composer, Bach wrote multidimensional music. Music that is beautiful and emotional on the surface, yet also runs very deep. There is always some degree of complexity to it. Sometimes, the music fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Or a fractal. Or has some amazing hidden structure that isn't revealed until you look & listen closely. Anyone who appreciates complexity, puzzles, depth, beauty, and especially the combination of those things, will like Bach.

If you read one book in your life, it should be Gödel, Escher, Bach by computer scientist Doug Hofstadter. Gödel, as you may know, was a mathematician, close to Einstein, and Escher – well, I guarantee you've seen and loved some of his geometric and paradoxical artwork.

The SETI program listens for extraterrestrial signals, but we've also sent signals into space. It's been suggested that if we're going to beam signals out into space, we should forget about the prime numbers, and just transmit Bach, all of Bach, over and over again! It would be bragging, but what the heck. In fact, the golden record sent into interstellar space aboard the Voyager probe contains three pieces by Bach. Only three.

We're still solving some of Bach's riddles today.

This is the lovely title page from the manuscript of one of his most important keyboard music collections. Notice the doodle at the top? In the last decade, several people have convincingly postulated that this encodes instructions on how to tune your instrument (there are many possible ways). This may solve the 250-year-old riddle of how he tuned! How's that for a great detective story?

Bach left other puzzles too. Imagine singing "Row, row, row your boat," but having to figure out when to come in, and at what pitch! And pieces whose deep structure we're still mining today, like the "Goldberg Variations."

At the core of virtually all of Bach's music – its most distinctive element – is something called counterpoint. This simply means that many different things are happening simultaneously. Even in a solo flute piece, he manages to time-multiplex more than one tune into the composition.

One of the best examples of counterpoint from popular music is Simon & Garfunkel's classic, Scarborough Fair. A lot of Beatles songs have some good counterpoint action too. It's a bit like a multiprocessor system, or complex logic. Many strands working together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

One of my favourite quotes by Bach, talking about his great keyboard virtuosity, was: "All you have to do is hit the right notes at the right time, and the instrument plays itself!"

And one about him, by a late colleague:

    Those of us who study Bach know that he is unique, in that you can study his music from almost any parameter you can dream up, and Bach's music will be perfectly, miraculously organized, original, ingenious and creative within the definitions of that paradigm. It's as if he thought of everything in all ways simultaneously, all the time.

Sounds like the definition of a good engineer.

A great piece of music has an internal logic – it creates its own little world. It's a bit like string theory. The quote above continues: "Had Bach been an astrophysicist, he'd be another Stephen Hawking." Well, no offense to Stephen, but I think that's vastly understating things. Maybe Stephen, plus Albert, plus Sir Isaac.

I've created a YouTube playlist that I know you'll enjoy. So, open your mind and your ears. Hook up your scope in X-Y mode if you think it'll help. I dare you not to be astounded.

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