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Reflections on the meaning of life and other puzzles, part two: J.S. Bach and quantum mechanics

By Charlotte Cerminaro
web posted June 18, 2018

When thinking about the different topics I wanted to cover in this series I originally had no intention of bringing up the newer, stranger ideas circulating around--ideas brought to light by movies such as “The Matrix”, “13th Floor” and quite a few others now following in their footsteps. Wanting to focus on abstract, yet still traditional, concepts relating to existence, consciousness, reality and human nature are cryptic enough. Then I realized that our understanding of what is possible, what is real, has gone through some revolutionary changes over the centuries.

The year was 1722. A groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting volume of work had just been completed. The creator of this work was a mathematical and musical genius by the name of J.S. Bach, and the work was a two-volume set of keyboard compositions called The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Many hundreds of years before J.S. Bach made his appearance on this earth, it was well-understood that the science of acoustics, and music itself, was mathematical in structure. The sound waves of different notes and frequencies were measured in cycles per second (cps or Hertz). For performing musicians this was of little relevance as they were capable of tuning with each other just by listening and adjusting. But with the advent of keyboard instruments and their sudden popularity, this mathematical structure would play an important role in their evolution and use.

The clavier (generic term for all keyboard instruments) could play melodies and harmonies at once, being both accompaniment and soloist. But tuning a clavier was a difficult, beastly affair. To get any consistency at all, they were tuned using a Pythagorean scale of numbers, integers based on the Hertz of different notes as they went through the circle of fifths. This was not a very accurate system for tuning--it made some intervals and notes good, others distorted and dissonant. Bach realized this limited the instrument, made modulations to different keys impossible and even kept composers from using innovative chord structures. He began tuning all of his keyboards himself, not tolerating the ghastly “wolf frequencies” caused by current tuning problems. He began to see that the simple linear, integer-based system was incompatible with the 12 tones of a keyboard, that it was a far more complex system of ratios and fractions based on Euclidian geometry which finally made it possible to fine-tune any clavier in any key. His new volume of work, consisting of 12 pieces covering each of the 12 keys, was the proof.

Move forward 300 years and our opinions on reality are once again challenged. This time it is our growing understanding of quantum theory and what that might actually mean for concepts like extra dimensions and the consistency of all matter and energy in the universe. Physicist Neils Bohr said, “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” Does this mean we are living in a “matrix”, or a digital simulation of reality? No. As the great philosopher Mortimer Adler used to say, “If you think this isn’t real, let’s go out to the parking lot...I’ll slam your hand in my car door, and you can keep telling me this isn’t real while writhing on the ground.”

This life is definitely real, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s more like a small subset of a much greater, deeper reality.  The only clues we are given as to the presence of these other dimensions are the rare occasions when our world is temporarily illuminated by something passing near, like a crossroads in the desert. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2018

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