Approaching the Overlap: Science and Art as Congruent Spheres

"The chemist who designs and completes an original and aesthetically pleasing multistep synthesis is like the composer, artist or poet who, with great individuality, fashions new forms of beauty from the interplay of mind and spirit." - E.J. Corey

Meet Alex Hernandez, a 20-year-old in Boston, who spends her days listening in on lecture series’ with esteemed psychologists, taking challenging science courses, writing case studies and observing special education students and geriatrics wards. Just your average music student, right?

Berklee College of Music is one of the few institutions that offers music therapy at the undergraduate level. Unlike most music students, Hernandez spends her days in the realm where science and art overlap. These two distinct worlds, as different as the left and right sides of our brain, come together in more ways than one. And hearing a series of distinguished therapists speak convinced Hernandez of this overlap herself:

“[It] was eye-opening; to see how many people you can reach with this particular field and what music can do, mentally, psychologically, to benefit and help these people.”

This overlap was even more apparent to Hernandez during her practicums, courses in which students in the program go to off-campus sites where music therapy is being practiced. She is currently in practicum three and works with older patients with Alzheimer's and dementia. The results are almost instantaneous:

“You’ll see people…their head buried, they won’t be in tune for most of the session. Then you sing their favorite song and they light up…their eyes are sparkling, they sing every single lyric of the entire song. It’s absolutely incredible. Of course, once the song is done they kind of go back into their state from before.”

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Music as a therapeutic tool is further confirmed in many a scientific study. One from the University of Nevada revealed rhythm as one of the first things to develop in the womb, the maternal heartbeat acting as a metronome for the fetus.

Still not convinced that music and science can go hand in hand? Boston University’s Dr. Aaron Beeler begs to differ.

As the Assistant Director of the Center for Molecular Discovery and Assistant Professor in the BU Chemistry Department, Dr. Beeler had little time for the arts, trying to “appreciate them when [he] can.”

But a serendipitously-placed piano outside this professor’s office window sparked something in him. This piano was one of 60 around the greater Boston area as a part of the Play Me I’m Yours project, which has been distributing pianos in Boston since 2013.

Over the summer, the project opened up a call for artist applicants, and a not-so-hopeful Dr. Beeler submitted his idea: a piano that showcased science. Much to his surprise, the idea was chosen, and Dr. Beeler and his fellow scientists from The Beeler Research Group at BU got to work on designing.

“As a scientist, it’s oftentimes really exciting when you see, even when it is basic, science [as a] part of a public exhibition.”

A link between science and art was already forming with a Medicinal Chemistry Ph.D recipient placed in charge of painting a piano, but Dr. Beeler took it a step further. He enlisted the non-science community to help him come up with ideas for molecules to incorporate into the design.

“The most exciting is to see the non-scientists get excited about chemistry. Somehow you’ve put something on there that touches them,” said Dr. Beeler, who received submissions ranging from molecules for the scent of lemon to Artemisinin.

To Dr. Beeler, there is something inherently creative in science; for Hernandez, there is something inherently scientific about music-making. This crossover is not widely understood and Hernandez often has to defend her major against skeptic music school peers.

“They think…you go into a room, someone’s sitting there, and you’re going to play their favorite song and they’re going to feel better and then they’re going to walk out. It dives in so much deeper than that. It’s giving  an environment of comfort and peace and bringing them out of whatever stage they’re feeling before they came into that door. It’s opening them up for more expressing and alleviating any stressful tensions that they had.”

Likewise, Dr. Beeler defends the creative aspect of science. He comments on seeing more and more people interested in science and art, and cites artist Todd Pavlisko who worked with UMass Boston’s Chemistry Department to use aqueous ammonia to manipulate violin bows for his art instillation.

“Scientists that are making new things, which is what organic chemists fundamentally often do, can relate to what would be traditionally artists and their goals,” says Dr. Beeler, who described the molecule he chose for the piano, FK 506, as not only important, but beautiful. His piano can be found on display at the Museum of Science.