I’ve often heard it said that music and maths go well together, but the British Science Festival in Swansea demonstrated to me that music permeates all the sciences in fascinating ways. The Festival programme was packed with musical entertainment as well as talks on exciting research taking place that has the sound of music at its heart.

Setting the Tone

On the first day, I was lucky enough to see musician Steve Wheel and the Swansea International Festival Director, Lyndon Jones, talk about ‘Les Paul: the man behind the guitar’. Les Paul was a self-taught guitarist whose musical experimentation and instrument design laid the foundations of Rock and Roll. As a musician, he is already recognised in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so it seemed appropriate to recognise him as an inventor among fellow scientists at the Festival.

Music for Body and Soul

Two events in particular really struck a chord with me. Dr Rob Malkin’s Award Lecture, entitled ‘The acoustics of nature’, and Dr Daisy Fancourt from the Royal College of Music, who asked ‘Can music change our immune system?’ These two lectures were incredibly inspiring, but also heart-warming as both presenters spoke of their motivations and their personal journey with their research.

Before Rob introduced us to the fascinating hearing mechanisms of the insects that we could one day emulate in engineering, he explained how our own ears work with the help of music. I watched with delight as a human ear hair vibrated on the big screen to ‘Rock around the Clock’, by Bill Haley and His Comets.

Using Led Zeppelin, Taylor Dayne, and Beethoven, he replicated how music sounds to those who are losing their hearing or who have cochlear implants. Hearing the reality of this was quite heart-breaking as for those with cochlear implants, music is screechy and practically unbearable. Rob then played the songs again to show how amazing these pieces of music sound when we can hear them in their full frequency glory.

“I would really like to restore this level of hearing to everyone”, he said. “It’s what drives me!”

Daisy opened her lecture with the help of the Tenovus Cancer Care choir, who sang renditions of songs, from ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ to the disco anthem ‘I Will Survive’. The choir conductor even got us all on our feet to sing a round of the ditty ‘Whose Pigs are these?’ the atmosphere served to demonstrate the positive effect music can have on our bodies.

Daisy explained that this is biological. She traced the history of scientists linking music to our health and well-being, before talking about her own research into the potential therapeutic effects of music.

 “People ask me if I think it will be possible to create pieces of music that can be specially targeted to try and cure specific health conditions…I don’t think it’s a simple as that”, she said. “But I also don’t see why we would want to do that because part of the beauty of music is that it’s not a pill. It’s actually a much more complex and rich invention. I don’t see why we would want to boil it down to something so reductive.”

Despite the early days of the research for both Daisy and Rob, they have certainly made me appreciate even more my hours of listening to and playing music during my life. I feel that music has probably made a valuable contribution to my health and happiness in ways that I had never considered. Everyone deserves to have that same experience.

But the scientific world can equally be a fuel for music.

The final day of the Festival welcomed J. Willgoose, Esq. of the band Public Service Broadcasting to share his experience of composing their last album ‘The Race for Space’, released in 2015.

Willgoose told us how he found inspiration in historical accounts of the battle for supremacy between the USA’s space program and their rivals in the Soviet Union. He turned to Nasa’s audio archive and audio from Soviet propaganda broadcasts to find the samples to weave into his music. He talked us through the composition process for each of the tracks on the album.

“I didn’t want to make this album unless we could make it about both the Soviet side of things and the American side of things”, he said. “The Americans have done a good job of persuading people that the race to the moon was the great victory of the Space Race, but the Russians did nearly everything else first….I wanted to kind of do them justice and use the two sides kind of against each other a bit.”

I’ve had a go at composing myself in the past, but this discussion really highlighted to me that there is a definite ‘science’ behind composing a successful album.

There was an instrument of a very different kind making music down on the beach. Festival goers had the opportunity to test out the Sonic Kayaks. The kayaks are fitted with underwater environmental sensors, which generate live music from the marine world. My colleague and BSA Media Fellow at the BBC, Dr Rob Thompson, was brave enough to try one, and he tried to describe the marine ‘music’ he heard.

“I think we’re going very avant-garde with our description of music there. Jazz Fusion? I don’t know!” he joked.

The Festival’s Swan(sea) Song

Although the great British weather prevented the final party from taking place on Swansea’s beautiful beach, the party spirit was not dampened and the music played on indoors.

Two home-grown Welsh bands took centre stage to entertain the crowds. News from Nowhere are from Swansea and are poised to release their new album in October. The partygoers were treated to a few songs from their new album, which is an experimental sound mixing several styles, including folk and psych. They were joined by North Wales band, Days of Wild Abandon, who rocked the stage with their alternative indie set, inspired by 80s pop and alt rock.

There was still time to learn about science even at the party as Dr Mark Lewney aka the ‘Rock Doctor’ played some classic rock guitar riffs by Queen, Slayer, and AC/DC to discuss the physics of vibrations.  

Elsewhere, theatregoers at the performance of ‘Copenhagen’ were treated to musical interludes from Ian Rutt as the plot unfolded on stage. Rutt’s beautiful, melancholic piano accompaniment contributed to the play’s philosophical discussion of science, nuclear technology, and the great responsibility that lay on the shoulders of some of history’s leading scientists. The play also hinted that scientists might once again decide the future of humankind.

That felt like a fitting message with which to end the Festival and one that sums up all the research showcased there. Science can solve problems and give hope. It can give rise to new inventions, the consequences of which we cannot always know.


Dr Rowenna Baldwin is a Manchester Metropolitan University Media Fellow. She is a Senior Research Assistant at the MMU Policy Evaluation and Research Unit.