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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 1998/09/15
by David Steinberg

The Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together

To many people music and math might seem to have little in common. The common view of mathematicians is of people who sit around and multiply extremely large numbers in their spare time. Most likely their interest in a jam band would be calculating the number of times that Dark Star opened Set III of a show in 1974 as compared to the number of times that would have happened in with a completely random song selection. Don’t get me wrong. I love playing with statistical analyses of setlists, but to think that’s the only interest math people have in the jam band experience is to misunderstand the nature of mathematicians.

This may surprise people, but mathematics can produce similar feelings as seeing a great band. Getting an insight into the underlying structure of a complex system makes you want to run around and tell everybody while you have this big goofy grin on your face. OK, I don’t expect to see math departments replace “Tea, Cookies, and Talks” with “Doses, Veggie Burritos, and Talks,” (to be scheduled at 4:20 of course) but the two worlds can be quite similar.

I am fascinated by peak experiences. Why does something as seemingly trivial as people plucking at strings have such power and why does it come so easily? Many things give ecstasy the way music does, but most require a lot more work. In math at least, the strength of the rush is usually based on how much work you put into trying to figure something out. The more work you put it, the more the joy you feel when it all makes sense. Music seems to be exactly the opposite. The more you know about music, the harder it is to put that aside and get the rush. Once you get into a band, you start thinking about repeats, about song selections, about what they could play next, about how this jam compared to the one they played in Portland last week, and all of a sudden your enjoyment starts to fade.

Music is the ultimate taoist, live in the moment, don’t intellectualize about it or you ruin it art form. Mathematics is all about the intellect. Yet somehow they do manage to be linked, both in the applied side of math (The Pythagoreans- an ancient Greek math cult- discovered that vibrating strings produce harmonies when the ratios of their lengths are whole numbers.) and the pure side of math (the similarity to feeling of solving a hard problem and seeing a great concert).

Perhaps it just boils down to this. Mathematics is the most mystical of the sciences and music is the most mystical of the arts, as is obvious to anyone who ever listened to “The Divided Sky” at sunrise on a long drive or who studied the enigmatic pi and how it shows up in the oddest of places. Is that enough to explain how these two seemingly different worlds end up being intertwined? I don’t know. Over the next months, I’ll examine the connection more in depth, I’ll explain the mystical nature of mathematics, and look more into why music makes us feel so good. While you might not drop off of tour to study Galois Theory, hopefully you’ll get a greater insight into what it is that makes people willing to devote their lives to solving a puzzle. Mathematics has brought me a lot of joy over the years; hopefully I can spread some of that.

_David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1993. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at

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