Body and Soul

Music stimulates parts of your brain critical to creative thinking.

The Athenian school of classical Greek history emphasized three modes of learning: academic, physical, and aesthetic. All three were considered necessary parts of a complete education.

If you work in the field of digital electronics, you probably do OK with academic subjects such as reading, writing, and math. How you stack up physically depends on whether, like me, you spent years hunched over a lab bench eating doughnuts, but that is not my main point. I would like you to consider, just for a moment, your aesthetic training.

I'm not talking about taking a class in art history or basket weaving. I mean for you to consider studying, perhaps with an eye toward mastering, a deep, meaningful type of aesthetics—the sort of subject that affects your soul.

Jing Wang, concertmaster of the Dallas Opera (2011)Take, for example, music. Rhythm, intonation, and harmony form only the beginning of musical study. A good musician works in layers, starting with a superior understanding of his instrument. A violinist, for example, studies instrument construction, vibration, resonance, and directionality. He knows the effects of temperature, humidity, age, wood, and varnish; the properties of strings, glue, horse hair, and rosin; and other factors. Onstage, his notes and chords combine with melody to form phrases, and from phrases he crafts larger sections and then complete works. His ability to connect with an audience requires a mastery of stage blocking, room acoustics, lighting, posture, attire, and tradition, along with less tangible qualities of personality, charm, and grace. A good musician simultaneously applies all levels of this knowledge in real time under stressful conditions.

Engineers tackle similar tasks. We also work in layers, starting at the atomic level of semiconductor physics and moving up through the design of active devices, then gates, registers, CPUs, whole computer systems, firmware, operating systems, high-level programming languages, and applications. The competent design of a digital masterpiece requires knowledge of packaging, power, crosstalk, ringing, cabling, connectors, PCB design, international standards, and other factors. We apply this knowledge in real time, under stressful conditions.

I find the duality fascinating. Look for it in other fields of human endeavor. The ability to work in layers, to manage tasks of almost unimaginable difficulty, is the hallmark of human excellence. My friends who are musicians engage in such work on a daily basis—as do you.

Even if you never master a musical instrument to the point of performing onstage, the simple act of learning to play music stimulates parts of your brain critical to creativity and insight. If you studied music as a child, you may discover that your powers of concentration are much greater now than they were then. Dreaded practice sessions are transformed into enjoyable time spent pinpointing and overcoming your limitations. Self-study promotes self-introspection and improvement in all areas.

So what's the difference between a musician and an engineer? Note this: Professional musicians spend four to eight hours a day in practice and rehearsal. They practice with an intensity akin to your college experience, only their education continues every day.

Imagine how good you would get at your craft if you worked that hard at it.

Howard Johnson, PhD, donates the use of his barn and facilities, located high in the mountains of eastern Washington state, for a series of professional chamber-music concerts every summer (

Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival 2011