Einstein and Classical Music

A lot of people are familiar with the equation E = mc2 and the pictures of the wild-haired scientist who created it, but how many know about Albert Einstein’s life-long passion for music?

The man responsible for predicting the existence of gravitational waves as the last brick in his theory of general relativity is so often reduced to a tongue-poking electric-hair-shock caricature: the slightly mad but cuddly genius who is just different to everybody else.

Einstein’s genius, however, wasn’t only limited to physics and mathematics. The author of Relativity: The Special and General Theory was also an avid music enthusiast.

It’s little known that Einstein was an accomplished violinist, and even less known that had he not pursued science, he said he would have been a musician.

Einstein developed an appreciation for music at an early age. In his late journals he wrote:

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”

Far more than a diversion or hobby, music was such a part of the man that it seems to have played a role in his scientific working processes.

Einstein’s second wife Elsa told the story of him one day appearing totally lost in thought, wandering to the piano and playing for half an hour while intermittently jotting down notes.

Disappearing into a room for two weeks (emerging for the odd piano session), he then surfaced with a working draft of the theory of general relativity.

Of course, piano playing and the theory of general relativity are not related in any direct or tangible sense. On one level, the story suggests that for Einstein, piano playing had the same effect walking has for many people. Ambulatory thinking processes release creative juices.

Beethoven knew it, as did apparently the ancient Greeks, not to mention many generations of writers.

But there were deeper levels to the science-music relationship in Einstein’s mind. There’s some evidence music played a role in the very shaping of his most important scientific discoveries.

To understand how, it’s important to know something about Einstein’s musical background, as well as his two favourite creators of music; the composers J.S. Bach and W.A. Mozart.

His mother was the musician in the family

Pauline Koch Einstein was an accomplished pianist in her own right, and taught Einstein to play the piano and violin when he was very young. Initially he showed more aptitude for the piano, but as he became a teenager he developed more interest in the violin.

Einstein began to study Violin at around the age of six. He studied with a variety of teachers up until the age of fourteen but found that many of these teachers lacked the spark he was looking for, preferring to concentrate on technical exercises rather than the heart of the music. In an article by A. Miller in the 2006 New York Times, he claims that the young Einstein threw a chair at his teacher in frustration at having to repeat endless technical drills. In spite of the ups and downs of his violin lessons Einstein continued to play the instrument for the rest of his life saying; “I get most joy in life out of my violin.”

Like many young children Einstein also learned the piano. His mother, Pauline Koch Einstein, was by all accounts an excellent pianist and it was her who tutored Einstein during his early musical explorations. It is claimed that while improvising at his piano Einstein actually came up with his relativity theory but that is little more than speculation. At first, Einstein showed more promise at the piano than the violin but the violin eventually won first place in the great man’s heart.

Einstein did, however, buy a Bechstein grand piano whilst living in Berlin. This instrument obviously meant a lot to him and he had the piano sent to him across the Atlantic when he took up residence in America in 1933. This was in response to the rise of the Nationalists in Germany and probably with a clear sense of the imminent danger, it would pose to him as a Jewish scientist.

After work he would relax, sometimes playing in the kitchen so as not to bother the neighbours:

“First I improvise and if that doesn’t help, I seek consolation in Mozart; but when I am improvising and I feel I am achieving something, I need the clear constructions of Bach to get to the end.”

Composers: likes and dislikes

His favourite composers were Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Vivaldi, Corelli and Scarlatti. He was not so keen on Beethoven, whom he considered to be too dramatic and personal. He had varying opinions on other composers, but the one he most opposed was Wagner, although he did appreciate his contribution to the new forms of opera.

He loved Mozart’s violin sonatas

Einstein suggested that, whereas Beethoven “­created” his music, Mozart’s “seemed to have been ­ever-­present in the universe, waiting to be discover­ed by the master.” We see this thought in one of Einstein’s scientific aphorisms: “In every naturalist there must be a kind of religious feeling; for he cannot imagine that the connections into which he sees have been thought of by him for the first time.” It’s a thought we find in many ­early modern scientists such as Galileo and Kepler: the scientist is really uncovering the rationality of God, which is expressed in the universe. The scientist’s thoughts about the universe somehow echo God’s thoughts. As Stephen Hawking pointed out in an ­often-­quoted aphorism, to find an answer to “why it is that we and the universe exist” is to “know the mind of God.”

So why did Einstein feel such an affinity with Mozart? Einstein’s admiration for this great composer emerged during the 1880s, long before the great Mozart revival of the first years of the twentieth century. In his study of Einstein’s core papers of 1905, the American physicist John S. Rigden suggested that Einstein’s achievement in science was comparable to Mozart’s in music. Both were rooted in the assumptions and conventions of their day, yet both demonstrated an intuitive leap and a new way of seeing things that lay beyond the reach of those assumptions and conventions.

J S Bach

At the very top of the list was clearly Mozart but Bach was also held in high esteem by Einstein. Here is one of the many quotes that illustrate how he felt about the great German contrapuntist; “It is impossible for me to say whether Bach or Mozart means more tome. In music, I do not look for logic. I am quite intuitive on the whole and know no theories. I never like work if I cannot intuitively grasp its inner unity”. We certainly know Einstein enjoyed performing Bach and I suspect the uniquely complex and formal nature of Bach’s work appealed to Einstein’s mind.


“Schubert is one of my favourites because of his superlative ability to express emotion and his enormous powers of melodic invention. But in his larger works, I am disturbed by a certain lack of architectonics.” Schubert was another composer who Einstein admired. We can see from the quote that it was not just structural integrity that Einstein looked for in the works of the masters but emotional expression through a melody. When Einstein refers to architectonics I think he is expressing his thoughts about the structure, possibly the tonal structure, of Schubert’s Symphonic works. Depending on how you view Schubert, it could be argued that Einstein had a valid point as Schubert could perhaps primarily be considered to be a celebrated composer of Leider (song) rather than a symphonist. It is in his songs that to my mind, we find the composer Einstein admired most.

Schumann and Mendelssohn

In the quote below, Einstein talks about Schumann and Mendelssohn. Many critics of Schumann would agree with Einstein that it is in his piano works and songs we hear him at his original best, whereas in his larger-scale works the overall shape and structure is not convincing. The comment about Mendelssohn seems a little unjustifiable, especially in the word banality, which reduces his work to that of mediocrity that simply isn’t true.

“Schumann is attractive to me in his smaller works because of their originality and richness of feeling, but his lack of formal greatness presents my full enjoyment. In Mendelssohn, I perceive considerable talent but an indefinable lack of depth that often leads to banality”.


Of Handel, Einstein is thought to have said, “I always feel that Handel is good, even perfect, but that he has a certain shallowness”. Like Einstein’s remarks about Mendelsohn, this comment places Handel in a rather unsympathetic light but maybe Einstein felt that in comparison to his beloved Bach, Handel’s work did not compare.


Whilst at school in Switzerland it has been remarked upon that Einstein worked very hard on learning the Brahms G Major Violin Sonata. This was because the famous Hungarian violinist of the time Joseph Joachim was performing the Sonata in one of his recitals close to the young Einstein. Joachim was a major exponent of Brahms’s works and indeed is credited with having recommended him to Schumann whose wife Clara then championed his music following the untimely death of her husband.

In a similar vein to Einstein’s observations about the music of Handel, Brahms does not fair too much better. “I find a few lieder (songs) and chamber works by Brahms truly significant, also in their structure. But most of his works have for me no inner persuasiveness. I do not understand why it was necessary to write them”. Of musical interest here is the reference to structure again which seems to play such an important role in Einstein’s choice of composer. His response is always intuitive which is how he likes to play.


I have always considered Beethoven and his economic use of musical material to be truly enlightened and his architecture robust. Einstein felt that Beethoven was “too personal, almost naked,” implying that perhaps he struck a too closer chord with this man of science who reportedly played Beethoven’s music with understanding.


Of all the many composers, Einstein makes comment on Wagner definitely receives the sharp end of his tongue. If we remember that Einstein narrowly escaped the terrors of the Nazi regime it is not entirely unreasonable for him to find Wagner’s personality as “indescribably offensive so that for the most part, I can listen to him only with disgust”. Einstein supports his musical critique of Wagner by saying that while he can admire his inventiveness, his “lack of architectural” is little more than decadent. Wagner was notoriously anti-Semitic and even though he wrote music that in many ways encapsulated the Romantic ideals, his views are not easily overlooked.

Einstein’s Violin(s)

Einstein had around ten different violins throughout his life, each receiving the nickname of Lina. It was whilst Einstein was playing one of these violins that his second wife Elsa was supposed to have fallen in love with him. She was reported to have said she’d fallen for Einstein as he played the violin “so beautifully”.

Towards the end of Einstein’s life, he found that the tone he was producing on his violin no longer pleased him and he gave up completely in the last years preferring instead to improvise on the piano. His last violin was given to his grandson Bernhard Caesar who kept it safe until his death in 2008.

Looking at the role of music in Einstein’s thinking sheds some light on how he shaped his most profound scientific ideas. His example suggests that in being intimately involved with the scientific complexity of music, he was able to bring a uniquely aesthetic quality to his theories. He wanted his science to be unified, harmonious, expressed simply, and to convey a sense of beauty of form.

He confessed to thinking about science in terms of images and intuitions, often drawn directly from his experiences as a musician, only later converting these into logic, words and mathematics.

What stands out is Einstein’s multi-dimensional approach to thinking. He saw complementarity between disciplines, and wouldn’t dream of siloing Science and the Humanities in separate bins.

As the importance of science and technology in combating inexorable environmental catastrophe becomes ever more incontrovertible, the importance of initiatives such as the STEM educational grouping appears self-evident.

But it’s clear from Einstein’s example that innovation in STEM involves modes of thinking that can come from the arts. For Einstein, it was the notion that the architectural and formal beauty he found in music could inform the inspiration and design of his scientific theories.

Music inspired and guided him; it stimulated parts of his brain that could not be accessed through sitting at his desk. It gave him a sense of patterns, feelings, hunches, intuitions – all manner of sensual information that could be described as ways of thinking that don’t involve words.

Some have suggested STEAM, so as to include the Arts in the grouping. Or STREAM, to include Reading and Writing. Wouldn’t it be great though if all human intellectual endeavours were simply treated equally?

Einstein used as many parts of his mind as he could to experience and interpret the world, to create knowledge. And yet again, it’s been proven that he’s not a bad example to follow.