Music is Math

Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra makes art from algorithms

Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra cellists Celestine Shih (left), a Yale Medical School student, and Dr. Grant Thomson. Dr. Stephanie Halene, a violist, can be seen in the background, behind Shih. Photo by Terry Dagradi/Yale University

Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra cellists Celestine Shih (left), a Yale Medical School student, and Dr. Grant Thomson. Dr. Stephanie Halene, a violist, can be seen in the background, behind Shih. Photo by Terry Dagradi/Yale University


By David Brensilver

Amanda Ray, a graduate student at the Yale School of Nursing who works in that capacity at Yale-New Haven Hospital, pointed out during a recent conversation about the Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra “music itself is math.”

Ray, who’s played bassoon with the orchestra since 2009, believes that making music with others in such an ensemble “makes you better scientifically minded.”

The group grew from an informal “open sight-reading” rehearsal organized in 2007 by Drs. Lynn Tanoue and Thomas P. Duffy and was inspired, in part, by the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, which is made up of musicians who work and study in Boston’s medical community.

Duffy, who practices and teaches hematology and serves as the director for the Program for Humanities in Medicine at Yale University, commented that many of Yale’s medical-school students have backgrounds in music, and that “we had probably the finest example of community” on stage at Harkness Auditorium during that 2007 rehearsal.

Tanoue, a violinist who specializes (in her “day job”) in pulmonary and critical care, said the Program for Humanities in Medicine – which helps support the orchestra – and by extension the ensemble itself, makes whole the lives of many in Yale’s medical community.

Leora Horwitz, a cellist who works as a primary care physician, health-care researcher, and assistant professor of medicine, has played with the YMSO since its debut performance in June 2008.

While she’d played in high school and college orchestras (and served as president of the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra), Horwitz said she “hadn’t been able to play properly in an orchestra … since college,” until she joined the YMSO.

Professionally, Horwitz said, “much of what I do is … collaborative.” That is, she works as part of various teams in the hospital and research settings. And nothing, she said, is more overtly team-oriented than an orchestra.

On stage, Horwitz said, “I’m acutely aware of everyone around me.”

Ray, too, said playing in the YMSO is very complementary to the health-care work she does.

Rehearsing and performing music with others “can contribute to your ability to work as a team,” she said, explaining that the attention to detail required of orchestra musicians, and the ability to understand one’s artistic responsibility as it relates to a piece’s orchestration, go beyond the notes on the page of a score.

As an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, Ray majored in math and worked in the orchestra office at the university’s Bienen School of Music, where she’d work on her math homework and hear conductors lament that “more musicians didn’t have a math background.”

“Music itself is math,” Ray said, referring not only to rhythm and tempo markings, but the physics and frequencies involved of making music.

When an orchestra gets the “algorithm” right, Ray, said, “that’s how you get Mozart and Beethoven and Mussorgsky.”

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One comment

  1. t h i n g s + f l e s h · · Reply

    yes … and chemistry and biology and … the purest sonic medium that makes us uniquely human. tony

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