Bernard Chazelle —
Discovering the Cosmology of Bach

Computer scientist Bernard Chazelle has an original take on what music works in us — especially the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Just as mathematicians talk about discovering rather than inventing great equations, so, he says, Bach set out to “discover” the musical rules behind the universe. After hearing this conversation, you may never listen to any piece of music — whether Bach or Jay-Z — in quite the same way again.

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is Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and a member of the European Academy of Sciences. He's authored an extensive collection of essays on music for A Tiny Revolution.

Pertinent Posts

A computer scientist's thorough and jaunty romp through Johann Sebastian Bach's most spectacular feats of musical engineering. An open invitation for Bach aficionados and novices alike to turn on the volume. If music be the food of love, read on.

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The Bolivian municipal orchestra of San Jose de Chiquitos perform the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in Toulouse. The orchestra is comprised of young musicians between the ages of 8 and 20.

Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images

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In reference to the "Discovering the Cosmology of Bach" episode with Bernard Chazelle, listeners/readers may enjoy this article which explores the physics of music specifically with an eye to spiritual insights that may be drawn from these physical realities:

A wonderful interview. After listening to the episode this morning my son and I listened to music from Bach to Nine Inch Nails and many things in between. Bernard Chazelle's interview was a great way to start the weekend. Beautiful music and interesting dialogue. Thanks Krista and all the folks at OnBeing for bringing another interesting topic and personality into our lives.

Stan, I couldn't have said it better!! What a wonderful interview and an enlightening conversation with Krista and Bernard Chazelle this morning. Mr. Chazelle was so captivating in his interpretation of Bach and his music....I learned so much about Bach and what a true genius he really was! Especially during his time on this earth. I wish that Mr. Chazelle could go around the country and speak at schools where music is taught to help inspire students in their musical talents!! Wonderfully entertaining man!

This made me think of you two. I often think of you, and truly miss you in astro-class.

I am often frustrated when listening to these interviews because Krista frequently interrupts the guest speaker right when they are in the middle of an idea. I especially felt it with Mr. Chazelle. It seemed each time he was about to go into something complex, she interrupted him; consequently I never really understood what he had to say about Bach's music, only got a little flavor of it. I understand that interviewing in front of an audience must be a tightrope walk, but I think Krista could trust her guests more, and allow for more pauses and even uncomfortableness. That's human, that's ok, it doesn't have to be this perfectly produced thing. Also, often interviewers seem to need to show that they know a lot about a subject, this is a difficult thing not to do, but often that means the interview ends up being about the interviewer's knowledge and not the guest's. This is not to say I don't greatly appreciate this program, or the knowledge and experience that Krista brings to it.

I agree with you 100%. I find this with Charlie Rose -- in spades -- but not with Terry Gross, on Fresh Air. Thanks for your comment.

I completely agree with Alison who stated her frustration with the technique of the interviewer. The interviewer interrupted throughout this interview. And interjected too much of herself. An interview should serve to unfold the person being interviewed. This unfolding was damaged by the interviewer. I don't give a whit she doesn't understand algorithms...and one final note..learn to be consistent in the pronunciation of Bach.

Agreed. Krista needs to let up on her own agenda and let the interview flow from the guest's expertise.

To Judy, Ian and Elizabeth - a gentle suggestion. When I want more from the interviews - which I often do - I listen to the unedited version. These are approximately 1.5 hours. Very satisfying! If you haven't tried this option yet, I heartily recommend it.

I disagree-listening to it live now and once I read your comment started to pay closer attention. Bernaard has been speaking for almost a minute and a half and other than one "hmmm mmmm" Krista hasn't said anything. She adds so much to each conversation (and they are conversations vs. interviews imo) and it's not like she's going off on tangents, she's adding to the dialogue.

Fascinating interview. The concept of discovering rather than creating reminds me of the answer Michelangelo gave when asked how he could have produced "the David". His answer was something like " I just took away everything that was not David"

This was a great show. Very nicely done and Krista's interaction with Bernard set exactly the right tone (grin). I'll definitely listen to this one again.

Amen and Amen! The cosmos is indeed a reflection of God!

Krista!We really experienced Your magic in this interchange! You both were able to connectme in such a profound way as though I were present when Bach performed his "Mass inB minor"..Really sweet vocation you got there!

Krista, Bernard Chazelle - another special program that was insightful and enjoyable. There was a segment when i listened on Sunday when a comment was made about a Bach composition ... that was heralded as the great classical piece attributed to him.... done with orchestration and voices... I could not locate on the website replay.... the composition "title" nor the replay of the piece. Can you help ?

Yes please, I logged on here specifically to find the piece that was heralded as the best music EVER - the one we would play to aliens as a way to show them what humans are... the part was beautiful... do share!

and PS the above comment by previous poster about algorithms and interruption -- I am a mathematician and would love if Krista would allow the interviewed to get a bit deeper. I always get excited when physicists and math people go On Being but am always a bit dissapointed that they don't get deep enough. Please stop assuming people don't understand.

Mr. Hedine and Susan D.:
The piece you refer to is Mass in B Minor.

I have been listening to On Being since 2011, when I was 19. Through years of not having a spiritual home base and often feeling lost within myself, listening to the huge variety of people she interviews, from radical activists to spiritual leaders to scientists, has been incredibly grounding. Majority of the interviews speak to me on a level deeper than the daily chatter of to-do lists and small-talk and compounding anxieties.

Yesterday I listened to a podcast from Nov 13, 2014 titled Discovering the Cosmology of Bach in which Ms. Tippett interviews Professor of Computer Science Bernard Chazelle. Connections between science/mathematics, spirituality, and music are a fascination of Ms. Tippett’s that has continued to surface in her interviews, and it is a passion I share with her. This quote of Mr. Chazelle’s particularly speaks to me:

“There’s something extremely optimistic and really almost dizzying when you hear something, and it moves you so intensely inside. And you realize, but this is you who is being moved. Nobody’s forcing this inside you. So in your brain, there must be this reservoir of beauty which most often is untapped, goes untapped. But if you can find it with the right spotlight, then you discover this amazing consonances, or dissonances, or this amazing narrative, story, inside you.”

Since hearing that (and rewinding several times to re-listen to the words and really let them settle in) I have been meditating on the idea of an inner reservoir of beauty. What does that mean? If we live with the assumption that everyone has that, we must also acknowledge that each individual requires something different to tap into that reservoir. What if we focused more of our energy on finding what gets that reservoir dam to break, and let THAT guide our approach to our educations, careers, and social justice activism tactics and approaches?

Specifically with that last one, I feel that the urgency of such disastrous injustices pushes us, as radical activists, to rush to action. Sometimes this is absolutely necessary. Sometimes this comes from fear. I am interested in exploring what it would mean to start from a place of a flowing reservoir of inner beauty, and let THAT guide the decisions we make about system-debunking tactics.

Meanwhile, I am on my own journey of trying to find the things that tap into my own reservoir. I know some of them. But knowing what they are isn’t enough. I have to commit to really acting on them, practicing them, and keeping the inner channels open. It’s a work in progress. Like most things.

I must admit that the concept “computational geometry” almost made my brain go into freeze mode. How can anyone say anything understandable about Bach from the perspective of computational geometry & algorithms?

Well, to my SURPRISE: Bernard Chazelle can! "Discovering the Cosmology of Bach” is actually a fabulous interview. It is informative, engaging and also quite funny. To be honest, this interview has - despite my initial concern - turned out to be one of my all time favorite episodes of On Being.

History of the universe is early i.e. early universe. The most important tale is that- it is possible to feel or assess it through the depth of our brain and nothing else i.e. no other means. Hence, it is crystal clear that our brain is the only specimen or allegory or key or Sample of the Universe. Please see my website at the universe and our place in its midst. See into- New Discovery of the Universe: can be found at Philosophy of Science, See Universe, My DEMO Final