Creativity in Science and Music: Thoughts from Edvin Østergaard

(First published April 12, 2009)

On a recent trip to Boston, we had the pleasure of meeting Edvin Østergaard, Ph.D., a Norwegian composer and scientist. He is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University, where he is working on a choral piece based on a text by Charles Darwin. Edvin has composed several pieces that use science as inspiration, and has also written on the connections between science and art. He published a paper in 2006 entitled “Composing Einstein: exploring the kinship of art and science,” in which he discusses his composition The Einstein Resoundings, commissioned by the Norwegian Society of Physics in 2005 for the centenary celebration of the publication of Einstein’s papers on special relativity and the particle nature of light.

In the paper, Edvin discusses complementarities of art and science, as well as differences. One particularly interesting section is his consideration of creativity:

This leads us to a final question concerning differences between art and science: Do scientists discover, while artists create? There are deep-rooted and equally problematic prejudices in both directions: The scientist is supposed to discover, that is to say reveal, unwrap something already existing, whereas the artist’s creation is unique. A common view of the artist is of someone who creates what did not exist beforehand. However, as Gunther Stent argues, we find uniqueness in both artistic and scientific work. It is evident that the exact synthesis of the elements of physics in the 1905 papers would not have existed without Einstein, no more than Fünf Klavierstücke would have existed without Schoenberg. On the other hand, a theory of relativity would most likely have been developed even if Einstein had failed to do so in 1905, and dodecaphony would most probably have been formulated even if Schoenberg had not got there first. Michelangelo talked of his sculpture in terms of removing superfluous marble covering the immanent form of the stone. The form of the statue is already there, he claimed, waiting to be dis-covered. Is it thus more relevant to define art as well as science as both commonplace and unique?

Both scientific and artistic creativity operate within certain bounds. Scientific insights must be tested by others and verified experimentally. Artisitc creations, while not subject to empirical verification, do have to pass a test of sorts. In a piece of music, for example, the composer must express something that others will respond to — the music must, in however abstract a way, communicate something true, something human.

Edvin concludes:

Creation is an ongoing process that has always existed and will continue to go on. Art and science are inextricably connected to the will to bring to expression. Although artistic and scientific expression themselves may be totally different — in terms of form, language, and aesthetic — there nevertheless seems to be a common striving to bring to the surface. And although what is brought into the world may seem new, fresh and innovative, the process itself is of archetypal dimensions. In this sense the world is not finished — it is open.

Maybe the most characteristic common hallmark of art and science is the resounding imperative of opening — by always questioning accepted truths.


Edvin’s paper is Østergaard, E. (2006) Composing Einstein: exploring the kinship of art and science. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 31:261–274.

The reference to Gunther Stent in the quoted section above is to Stent, G.S. (1983) Creation in art and science. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 8:371–378.

John Olson