Violinist and Scientist

August 30, 2009 at 04:30 AM ·

Einstein, the famous scientist played the violin. Who else?

Replies (37)

August 30, 2009 at 02:17 PM ·

Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin (I think...)

August 30, 2009 at 03:17 PM ·

Me! Chronological life-history: violinist, cellist, physicist, violinist/cellist.


August 30, 2009 at 03:27 PM ·

 Haha nice. Can I count myself in as well? I'm a violinist and a chemist.

Andy - interesting, I'm about to start getting cello lessons myself as well in the upcoming months, in addition to continuing with the violin! Any tips??

I'd like to include Borodin, although I guess he was really a cellist. I just remember hearing his name over and over again in some of my chemistry courses... and just thinking... what a beautiful string quartet.

August 30, 2009 at 04:14 PM ·

"A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin. What else does a person need to be happy?" (Albert Einstein). That's pretty good..!

August 30, 2009 at 05:07 PM ·

To J. Lee,

Everything you learned playing the violin will help you become a cellist EXCEPT how to hold the bow and how to use your left hand. Anything you teach yourself before your lessons begin will be wrong and have to be fixed (which is harder than doing it right from the start).

Your music reading abilities will remain the same --with a bit of a shift in your mind for the several clefs you will eventually have to learn to read.

Your sense of intonation and how to instantly correct will enhance your cello playing.

The feel of the bow on the strings, that you learned from violin playing, will apply to your cello bowing, even though the bow is held somewhat differently. (Interesting story: I started a 59 year old cello beginner. She could bow well from the start. It turned out she had taken violin lessons until she was 13 and not played since. But she retained that feel for a bow on the strings for 46 years.)

Pay careful attention to your cello teacher's instructions on holding and using the cello bow. It does take more strength than a violin bow (especially at the tip) but it is more in using the weight of your right arm and balance and leverage transmitted through your fingers. Other than that, cello bowing is actually easier than violin bowing. On the other hand, details about "bent thumb" and which knuckles should be where on the stick are factors of arm length and hand size and if your teacher is not aware of that troubles between you will (and should) soon follow.

The left hand gets its applied forces much more from the back muscles and the weight of the arm applied to the sounding finger(s). If you do this wrong you will tire quickly and can hurt yourself. Key to doing this correctly is that the weight of the cello acts on your chest.

However your teacher extends his/her endpin, many factors of your own body dimensions determine how the endpin should be extended and at what angle to the floor your cello should be held (even arm length is an important factor in this).

The chair you sit in is part of the cello you play (so to speak) and if you play in different venues this can get out of your control. For many years, I carried my own cello stools in both cars - just in case - as well as a seat wedge cushion to adjust chair comfort.

I had been playing violin for 10 years when I started cello at age 14. I was sight reading and playing some of my violin music on the cello the first day (transposed an octave down). Before the end of the week I was working on a Mozart Sonata (the only one in existence for cello - converted from bassoon) thus learning to read bass clef. Before the end of the second week I played cello with an adult string quartet (the reason I was given the cello in the first place. After less than a month my cello lessons started (with a lot of left and right hand corrections), and that same day I joined the local community orchestra at its very first rehearsal, sitting net to my teacher, who was the principal cellist. It all served me very well.

Good luck with cello learning.


August 30, 2009 at 07:34 PM ·

Greetings everyone:

I think we need to mention engineers.  The majority of people don't know of the difference.  In terms of practicality the engineer is the doer and master.  I feel that being an engineer allows for a greater breath of understanding the violin, but fosters the creativity required for musical interpretation.  Often the scientists mind is too sterile to allow for this growth.  Perhaps it can be said that good engineers/scientists/violinists are all renaissance men/women and leave it at that.  

My favorite scientist/violinists:  Einstein & Borodin (though Borodin wasn't strictly a violinist, he was chemist).   Check out the inspiring link below.

Alberts Violin History (string theory anyone)

Unfortunately I don’t know of any famous chemical engineers that are violinists also.  But, I’m sure that one is in the making.

Mike Felzien


August 30, 2009 at 08:09 PM ·

I'm an engineer with an advanced degree; have been one for 30 years.  My violin playing gives me 'right brain' exercise.  My left brain doesn't need any more exercise.  It's already crammed with calculus, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and similar concepts.  

It's a matter of using the entire brain like Einstein (but I'm a far cry from him!).  I have taught at numerous universities and played in orchestras with many students of engineering and science.  I've been told by several conductors that we're not a bad bunch.  Science and music go hand-in-hand.  Music has been a great gift.  I had no idea of that when I learned to play when I was twelve.

August 30, 2009 at 08:48 PM ·

Michael, I really enjoyed that musical/text clip about Einstein. What a polite way that 2nd violinist had to challenge his counting irregularities - don't you think?


August 30, 2009 at 09:29 PM ·



It’s a good clip.  I get inspired watching it.  The concepts of standing waves and superposition are so fundamental to the way everything works and “communicates”.  This still inspires me all these years later, when practicing the violin.  As I know it does for many others.  I suppose that a little hubris, tempered with a good reality check once in a while, goes a long way to make for respectable humans and citizens.


Mike Felzien



August 31, 2009 at 05:38 AM ·

This is an encouraging conversation!  So Andrew, you think my son will still have time while pursing physics in college to keep up with his violin playing?  Music is such a big part of his life yet he's never said he was going to major in it.  His interest has been physics for the past 3 years and he's been a part time college student taking physics and math classes for a few years but I have a small concern in the back of my mind that once he goes full time, he won't pick up his violin after playing for so many years. (He's 15 now)  

August 31, 2009 at 02:16 PM ·

Rebecca, Everyone I knew in the Swarthmore College orchestra 57 - 53 years ago was majoring in something other than music (except for Peter Shickele, who was a music major, I think). For me it was chemistry and physics. And it doesn't get any harder than that school.


August 31, 2009 at 05:17 PM ·

I believe J. Robert Oppenheimer also.

September 1, 2009 at 04:20 AM ·

Hey can we include kind of "forced" scientists (student level) in this??? If yes, I qualify!!! lol By "forced" I mean that in our school system, so many non scientific and "just applying the results of sciences..." universitary programs require collegial sciences. So students enter in sciences in college often kind of against their will just to go in something non scientific or so lightly scientific they want at university... Sad reality but that is not the point of this thread so never mind!!!  


Bravo to those you do the two professionnally! This must not be easy!

September 2, 2009 at 07:13 AM ·

Do MDs count? Then we could include Kreisler, Dounis, and me.

September 2, 2009 at 08:44 AM ·

Me, too.

I studied biology then experimental psychology, and taught cognitive psy for the Open University. I started a PhD (unfinished) in the cognitive bases of musical improvisation.

But I have always made my living as a violinist.


September 2, 2009 at 10:04 AM ·

And our own Karen Allendorfer; violin/viola.

September 2, 2009 at 11:19 AM ·

Well, not as famous as Einstein, but I do.

September 2, 2009 at 04:18 PM ·

Thanks Royce, I was thinking I could include myself--Neuroscience PhD, violin/viola.  There are actually quite a lot of us with technical jobs in the Boston area who also play musical instruments. In the orchestra I play in, the violin section includes at least one of these, possibly more--engineer, computer scientist, physical therapist, epidemiology grad student, science teacher.

But it is hard to find the time to do both, because science can be, like music, an all-consuming vocation.  I quit violin twice, once while getting that PhD, and was only really able to start playing and taking lessons again recently when I found a more flexible and less demanding job away from the lab bench.

September 2, 2009 at 04:40 PM ·

Ah, I couldn't quit the violin, which is why I didn't finish my PhD.

I felt that it was better for me to do it than study it.


September 2, 2009 at 08:23 PM ·

Karen- You are more than welcome!  Your contributions here are greatly apreciated and I admire your accomplishments, especially getting back to the violin/viola! {;^)  I work in the Physical Science bldg. here at UW and with our staff & faculty in the sciences it's amazing that they have anytime to do anything else!

September 2, 2009 at 06:46 PM ·

 Didn't Cory Cerovsek take advanced degrees in mathematics?  

September 2, 2009 at 08:23 PM ·

Also, our own Sander (Sandy) Marcus!!!!

September 3, 2009 at 07:20 AM ·

Thanks for the replies. I never knew that so many people in are so talented...WOW :D

September 3, 2009 at 12:43 PM ·

Hey, Royce: thanks for the plug.

Yes, I'm a clinical psychologist, but do you know the definition of a clinical psychologist?.....That's a person who can take a potentially very, very interesting topic (, say...."sex") and make it dull and boring.

However, I have to say that my interest in music and violin playing predates my interest in psychology by about a dozen years. But I do love my work. I'm at a University (IIT) in Chicago, but I don't teach (I'm in a service role). I have done research and counseling (in the area of personality and motivation), career and job search counseling (I've written or edited well over 10,000 resumes), consulting to companies, training of graduate students, and other activities. I've co-authored 2 books (on academic underachievement) and a couple of psychological tests out on the market. I've been happily married  for 41 years to Christine (a Paramedic with the Chicago Fire Department) and we have two grown children. I also write (in the field and some fiction).

But with all that, classical music and the violin has been and continues to be almost part of my skin. I was fortunate to have three great teachers when I was younger. While I haven't had the time for it in recent years, I've been in my share of school orchestras, community orchestras, and chamber ensembles. When I have the time to commit to several months and can find an accompanist, I prepare a brief recital (at my level) for my Rotary club and other similar venues.

So, yes, it's possible to love the violin and still have professional life. There many be many, many more scientists, other professionals, businesspeople, and others who may be more involved in violin performance than I've been, but in the area of loving it and appreciating it, I'll stand with anyone. And, yes, I try to give it my "3-minute" method every day (go to - It got me through a very demanding graduate school program years ago.

I've also known businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and others who not only have a successful career, but who play violin at a professional level. So, if any of you out there think it can't be done, you may be right - but why not give it good try?


September 3, 2009 at 06:51 PM ·

Based on my personal observation, the  combination of scientist and serious amateur musician is actually very common. Aren't the "investigative" and "creative" personality traits next to one another on one of those personality tests that is often used in career counseling of high school students? I'm a professional scientist and amateur violinist.  PhD in biochemistry & biophysics, postdoctoral research in molecular neurobiology and now I investigate psychiatric drugs for a living... but play in a string quartet and sing in a choir.  It's my ideal life:  science for the mind, art and music for the soul -- and for fun!  It is also far more possible to be an amateur violinist than an amateur biomedical research scientist!  The difficulty is in being a GOOD amateur violinist, because science can be pretty demanding. Others have succeeded in that far better than I have...

September 3, 2009 at 08:51 PM ·

Joyce this is what frightens me! Sure very easy to be an amateur violinist but how hard to be a GOOD amateur!!! lol  BTW congratulations for all your accomplishments!!!


September 4, 2009 at 02:45 AM ·

I'm working on my Ph.D in physics, and started playing violin a year and a half ago. I was surprised to find that I was not the exception in the department either. I attended to annual department concert, expecting it to be a short program of poor quality. It ran for about 4 hours, and I was amazed at the level of playing. There were pieces from a large variety of musical genres from around the world, all played excellently. I can't say this for certain, but I would not be surprised if the physics department had the highest average number of musicians in the entire university, excepting the music department, of course. 

An aside: I disagree that engineers are more inventive or creative than other scientists. I think that engineers have an easier time having that inventiveness recognized in their work. The clever solution they came up with is there for all to see in the final product. With a few rare exceptions (Einstien is a good example), creativity in science is rarely recognized by the general public. A lot of the time, only other specialists in a closely related field can recognize it. As for practicality, I'd like to say that scientists are even with engineers, but I just re-tapped some threaded holes that some previous user of the apparatus I'm using for my experiments destroyed by not understanding how a bolt works.

September 4, 2009 at 08:40 AM ·

Andrew and Ryan,

I now have high hopes that if my son doesn't go off and try to become a radio sports talk show host (15 year olds are always keeping you on your toes) , he'll have a long and happy life as a physicist/amateur violinist. 

Oddly enough (not), my dad was an engineering physicist for Kitt Peak as well as a professional french horn/trumpet player.  I think he went amateur after he joined Kitt Peak but I have fond memories of the barbershop brass quartet that he played in for all the office parties. :-)

September 4, 2009 at 04:14 PM ·

Anne-Marie, I have known of several scientists/ engineers/ physicians who are excellent musicians. Most of those started as young children and studied with the same intensity as those who ultimately went into music, at least through high school and sometimes through college. Typically music took a back seat during graduate/medical school and while raising young children.  However, I also have a colleague who took up cello as an adult beginner during grad school, so anyting is possible.

According to the "10,000 hour theory" (explained very entertainingly by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers) studies suggest that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at anything. I would add that those hours must be fully intellectually and emotionally engaged hours of practice. Neurobiology suggests that it is also helpful, though not necessary, that some of those hours happen before puberty, when the brain is more "plastic". My own problem is that I like to do so many things, that there is insufficient time to become truly good at any of them and I must always remind myself that the only thing I MUST be good at is what I do professionally. 

Ryan, thank you for bringing up the distinction between basic science and applied science. Most people only get to see the accomplishments of applied science (engineering and medicine), and don't realize that the basic science is really the underpinning for it all. 

September 4, 2009 at 06:39 PM ·

 Joyce, I think it's 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, not to "be good at."  I don't think one has to achieve mastery of something in order to enjoy it and contribute.  

And I agree that you get a lot more out of being an amateur violinist than an amateur scientist, at least in the U.S. Most cutting-edge science being done here these days needs grant $ and lab space, both of which are in very short supply to amateurs.

September 4, 2009 at 06:48 PM ·

There were several scientists in the string section of the orchestra I used to be a regular in.

I also just found that Werher von Braun was a cellist who had studied some composition with Paul Hindemith.  Although in spite of his physics PhD, he was really an engineer.


September 12, 2009 at 10:28 PM ·

We've forgotten Theodor Billroth, the nineteenth-century  pioneer of surgery, to whom Brahms dedicated his string quartets Op. 51. He must have been an able violinist: Brahms entrusted his works for string quartet and related ensembles to his quartet for a first try-out. They called their custom the "ius primae noctis".

August 19, 2014 at 06:16 PM · Ahem...

As long as you don't write accomplished violinist :D

August 20, 2014 at 12:59 PM · Elise,

Looks like you dug deep into the archives on this one. :-)

I missed it the first time around, so here goes.

I'm in the engineering camp: worked on the first Flight Management computer for commercial aircraft, contributed to design of a missile tracking system, and somehow ended up in IT.

But as a violinist, I have rare moments of adequacy.

Re: science vs engineering: sometimes the lines are pretty blurred, because there is so much commonality. My take is that engineers are focused on using science to deliver a usable item. Scientists are more focused on delivering principles. But the two overlap: one of my faculty advisors was an Electrical Engineer on the experiment to demonstrate antimatter. There were "pure" scientists on the Manhattan Project, which had a very specific deliverable.

Applied vs theoretical vs research science? It's all science.

I think it's better if engineers and scientists set aside the posturing and just play some Bach. :-)

August 20, 2014 at 02:12 PM · It seems to be a fairly common pairing...

I think many people - when confronted with deciding on a career path (art vs. science)...opt for science because that's where the stable jobs are more likely to be found...but they still need the 'art' fix...and so they pursue that on the side when they can...'s easier to engage in both if you have science as your job and art as your hobby...

How many professional violinists do you know who build rockets on the side? ;)

August 23, 2014 at 04:01 AM · From the late fifties until 2003 there was an organization most of whose members were both scientists and string players. This was the Catgut Acoustical Society. In addition to their day jobs (and fiddling) members researched many parameters of the instruments. Their concentrated study was in the details of how sound is generated and broadcast from the violin.

Papers of their results were published in the CAS Journal and made readily available to luthiers and any one else who is interested. The full set of Journal papers are now available on line from Stanford University.

In centuries past, luthiers for the main part were secretive about their work and only passed on their knowledge to apprentices. The CAS, by publishing their findings, has encouraged a new openness of their techniques among violin makers that has created a new era of excellent violins.


August 24, 2014 at 12:51 AM · My father was an internationally respected scientist in his field, and he would have been a violinist except for a childhood accident which cost him an arm and a leg (literally). So he became a scientist and a trumpet player. Half credit?

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