Interface between music and biology

As a grad student, you find yourself in a position where you want to be very productive your field of interest and spend most of your waking (and even sleeping) hours thinking about your project. However, I believe that constantly thinking about one project, or even side-projects in the same field, may burn you out and hinder your productivity because you stop thinking outside the box.  I believe that hobbies are important. I have many hobbies, including woodworking, drawing, haiku writing (check out to see some of the haikus written by biologists including me), and learning the guitar and ukulele, and playing classical clarinet (a lot better than the guitar and ukulele).

I have noticed that a lot of scientists play music. I have played during my master’s in I Medici Di McGill orchestra. It’s an amateur orchestra where the majority of musicians are medical doctors! We put on two concerts a year, playing concertos of all the great composers. Now I play chamber music (classical music in small ensembles such as trios or quartets) with the Carleton music department. And it’s all about the enjoyment of music and telling a story by a different means.

More precisely I have noticed, through my academic years, that many biologists play music. There are many professors and students in the departments I have been in that play an instrument. The range of music also varies quite a bit from classical to jazz to bluegrass and everything in between. Another example is music during the Ecological Society of America annual meeting, a group of very dedicated musicians puts on an evening of music during the annual meeting. They also get together every evening in the hallways of the convention center and improvise. It’s a pleasure to listen to and I should bring my instrument there in the future. Even at the Entomological Society of America and the Entomological Society of Canada there are evenings where a group of musical biologists gets together to play, it’s usually a band that has been practising together.

All this music, got me wondering why there is this link between being a biologist and a musician. If one is a biologist, is that person in need of some different mental exercise? Is this release (or any other creative release) necessary to be a good biologist? I don’t have the answer but I think it may be. Maybe, by having a creative hobby, a biologist can make better links between subjects and find the solutions to their scientific questions. Sometimes, when I’m feeling very stressed and have been working/thinking about a project too much or too long, I pick up my clarinet or my ukulele and practice for a bit. It calms me down and helps me see things clearer. Maybe it’s because by playing music you’re telling a story. Biologists also tell stories. The stories are different but maybe by telling one it facilitates the second one.

I guess whatever the reason you play music or create works of art or do any type of hobby, keep doing it because it results in great science and good biological stories are being told.



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