Symphonic Science

Music Directors often schedule program selections based on underlying themes to heighten audience interest. So it was with our most recent Dubuque Symphony Orchestra program. Many composers gain inspiration for their musical compositions by blending natural, historic, visual, and emotional dimensions with their creative offerings. In this way, music is a divine gift for composers and listeners alike enabling them to express their innermost perceptions and longings.


In our neighborhood the Dubuque, IA Symphony Orchestra has just completed the last of four concerts in their 2018/2019 season. The themes were “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water”—one concert for each of the four “classical elements” traditionally originating with thinkers in the Greek culture of 2500 years ago. During the March 24 concert “Water” was celebrated.


Many other cultures in the ancient world speculated that different types of matter were composed of just a few simple elements. By the 18th century, scientific thinking had advanced concerning the physical properties of matter. Since the onset of the Scientific Revolution dating back to the 16th century, the formal term “scientist” originated more recently, 200 years ago. Prior to this, practitioners of science were known as “natural philosophers.” In the 18th century, natural philosophers began to use empirical methods based on formal experience and experimentation to investigate, identify, and isolate elemental substances. About 22 chemical elements were discovered during that century. In the 19th and 20th centuries knowledge of the identity of chemical elements increased dramatically. Now about 100 chemical elements are known—unique substances whose atoms comprise all known substances. There are millions of physical mixtures of these 100 elements and thousands of compounds composed of chemical combinations of the same 100 elements.


Greek philosophical thinkers proposed existence of only four classical elements—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. These concepts preceded proposals of scientists who endorse modern chemical concepts of 100 elements, each composed of different submicroscopic atoms. How far has humanity’s scientific knowledge come in 2.5 millennia!


With the introduction above, we return to our symphony orchestra concert science experience. Our talented and personable director, William Intriligator, introduced the concert theme—Water—reminding the audience that nearby areas of the Midwest to our west and north are experiencing a lot of water this spring. Snowmelt has combined with heavy rains due to a rare meteorological event called a “bomb cyclone.” In some areas of the US Midwest the floods have been historic and tragic. Planetary climate ordinarily provides the human population with “a place to thrive.” We acknowledge that on rare occasions meteorologic events have severe impacts. Notwithstanding, many past posts have touted our planet as “a place to thrive.”


The theme On Water in the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra concert #4 brought to mind many reminders of scientific truth, sometimes with theological overtones. My personal enjoyment of the performance took me beyond mere passive listening. The program included well-known compositions with a water theme by Johann Strauss, G. F. Handel, Michael Daugherty, Bedrich Smetana, and Ottorina Respighi. We continue our discussion of “symphonic science” below, highlighting three dimensions of science which came to mind as my wife and I savored the “On Water” program from our balcony seats: (1) Consciousness, (2) Creativity, and (3) Sensory Perception.


Consciousness – The ability of famous composers to consciously perceive their environment and synthesize their experiences with meaningful musical expressions is a noteworthy human talent. The phenomenon of consciousness is not as well-understood as some believe. One definition: Personal awareness of one’s surroundings. What is involved in personal awareness? Much research has been produced by behavioral scientists in their effort to address and explain how consciousness works in the human body. One famous cognitive scientist, David Chalmers, has coined the phrase “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” He may agree with cognitive scientist Alva Noe who wrote that conscious creativity and decision making is “traceable to the continual storm of electrical activity in the complex neural network called our brain.” This statement is interesting and factual but not adequately explanatory.    


Creativity – We are impelled to marvel at the creativity of gifted composers of music. Why are some composers able to produce a wealth of wondrous melodies and auditory effects and still follow the rules of musical composition? The creativity of musical prodigies is not well understood. Are prodigies born or raised? There is no satisfactory reductive explanation for the tiny segment of composers on the most creative corner of the musical bell-curve.


Sensory Perception – Concertgoers revel in enjoyment of work produced by the most talented composers or performers. We also recognize the ability of concertgoers to enjoy the wonderful auditory stimulation of the rich orchestral blend and the visual stimulation of string sections bowing in visual synchronization. Audition and vision are bodily senses understood and explained by scientists.


When we return from a music venue and compare notes with fellow concertgoers, we inquire how they “enjoyed the concert.” There are many dimensions of enjoyment—sound, sight, and science. We give thanks to the Creator for our ability to savor all three.



ABOUT DR. JOHN ANKERBERG Dr. John Ankerberg is an American Christian television host, author, and speaker. Dr. Ankerberg is a graduate of the University of Illinois—Chicago,...

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