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vol. 13, no. 1
(September/October 2005): 5-6

Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth

Music Composition

by Cindy McTee

Personally, I have the greatest degree of pleasure in having contact with works of art. They furnish me with happy feelings of an intensity such as I cannot derive from other realms. -Einstein

Albert Einstein’s participation in the arts began at an early age. His parents, and especially his mother, a pianist, insisted that he study violin as a child. Continuing his musical activities into adulthood, Einstein played Bach, Mozart, and Schubert in small groups, often with musicians far more gifted than himself, one of whom had the thrill of asking the world’s most famous scientist, “Einstein, can’t you count?”

After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. -Einstein

Einstein fully understood the interrelationships between art and science. Both fields investigate the unknown, propose theories, experiment with possibilities, attempt to resolve paradoxes, and generally help us to better understand ourselves and the universe in which we live. It is interesting to note that Einstein’s (ultimately fruitless) search for a grand theory took him into a world where intuition prevailed—a place where science and art merged.

To me, it is enough to wonder at the secrets. -Einstein

In my own personal experience as a composer, science and art come together perhaps most noticeably in the field of computer music. One of the most striking applications of computer music software is its ability to stretch sound in time without necessarily changing its pitch. In composing my recent work for computer instruments and orchestra, Einstein’s Dream, I became interested in a technique known as time-stretching. Time-stretching is loosely analogous to the way in which Einstein’s equations of relativity predict that gravity—the warping of space-time by matter—not only stretches or shrinks distances, but also appears to slow down or dilate the flow of time. Concepts of before and after merge, creating new temporal experiences. What most intrigued me about musical time-stretching was its ability to shift the listener’s attention toward the inner components of the sound—the harmonics and the overlapping resonant regions—as if inviting a kind of meditation “to wonder at the secrets.”

The greatest scientists are always artists as well. –Einstein

Art objects, such as sculptures or paintings, exist in space. But what about music? What contains a string quartet or a piano sonata? The answer, of course, is time. Musical time is not like ordinary clock time. To paraphrase author Jonathan D. Kramer, musical time is more like the kind of time experienced when reading a story in which time repeats, reverses, accelerates, decelerates, and possibly stops. Albert Einstein taught us that we live in a universe where time can behave in these extraordinary ways. But perhaps his greatest legacy can be found in the example of his work, which challenges us to look for answers in those magical places where reality and fantasy become one thing—at the threshold between science and art.

Cindy McTee is professor of music composition at the University of North Texas and the composer of Einstein’s Dream. More about her work can be found at In her spare time, she enjoys participating in amateur competition competitive ballroom dancing and driving her sports car at local auto club events.