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Timeline: Vibrating Strings

U.S. Public Domain
This is a diagram used to illustrate the open and closed nature of the vibrating filaments of energy that make up the basis of string theory.

Let’s start from the beginning… Where does music come from? I believe that music is at the heart of everything. It is the language of a vibrating, living cosmos. And this isn’t exaggeration; this is the basis of a current theory about what truly makes up the universe.

During my studies at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts we were visited by Brian Greene a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. Brian is a proponent of string theory, a theoretical idea that seeks to explain the behavior of everything, big and small. String theory posits that deep inside the smallest particle we can observe there are tiny lines of energy vibrating at different frequencies and these vibrations interact to create everything that there is; from a hydrogen atom to the largest galaxy.

During his time with us, Professor Greene had a session with the composers at the school of music. We were discussing creativity and the genesis of new ideas. At the end, he asked for questions. I raised my hand and said, “I’ve read your book the Elegant Universe and I have a very basic understanding of your research. I want to ask, at its heart, is string theory stating that the rules of music, the mathematics of frequency, harmonics and pitch, are the same as the rules for these vibrating strings that make up everything?” Brian said that in essence, I was correct. I’ve thought about that question and answer for years now, it is has truly captured my imagination.

So, imagine with me, these infinitesimally small chords of energy like the strings of a violin. They can play different notes, different frequencies and when they do, they behave in unique ways. One note makes them an electron, another the building blocks of the nucleus of an atom. How they play together influences gravity, nuclear decay, magnetism, all of the forces of physics. According to string theory, this universe is an orchestra of strings playing a symphony that is existence itself.

So when we think about where music comes from, let’s start from the very beginning. Because the first note of this cosmic symphony would be the big bang itself. And the music continues, everything we know, everything we see and don’t see is ringing with this song of existence. At the risk of sounding overly poetic, you and me, everything… we are music.

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James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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