Department Head: Prof. Yoel Greenberg

פרופ' יואל גרינברגBA in Mathematics and Computer Science, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem

MA and PhD in Musicology, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem

Post-doctoral internship in the Department of Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Music, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

So… what can we do with a degree in Humanities?

I can tell you about the employment horizons that music studies offer, but I prefer noting that our students are well-integrated in the labor market and elaborate by sharing two stories.

There’s the story of mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy who was asked by a student at the conclusion of a lesson: “What is the use of that?” Instead of answering, Cauchy kicked him out.

The second story is personal. Twelve years ago, I co-lectured with my research partner, an outstanding evolutionary biologist, about the influence of nets in music for an audience of environmental and evolutionary biology students. At the end of our lecture, one student asked us: “We save species from extinction and help preserve Earth. What is the significance of your research?” While I was embarrassed, my partner did not flinch and answered: “When Darwin developed the Theory of Evolution, which stands behind everything we do, his work was part of the natural history field. If he had to justify his research in terms of usefulness, he would have certainly had to move to another field, and today we would not have preserved species.”

Human supremacy does not rely on our capability to invent practical tools. Many animals do that. Our advantage is that we stand on the shoulders of the knowledge that many previous generations built, some of which will be useful someday—as, for example, the go-to encryption today originated from an ancient and theoretical question of a Greek mathematician. But Cauchy’s lesson was this: knowledge is not a means to an end. Knowledge is a cause in itself. So if you study music to be a teacher, therapist, or researcher, and if you combine music studies with computers, physics, or law, you take part in developing this glorious human legacy of knowledge as a cause in itself.

What attracted you to the field? And why study Music?

I have always loved music. There is no other thing that brings me to a similar exaltation as good music does. And just so that you can experience, hopefully, some of such exaltation, here is a link for a string quartet of the Check composer Bedřich Smetana, which opens with a stirring viola solo, performed by Carmel Quartet, of which I am a member.

Since childhood, I have been engaged in music and played the violin and viola; playing alone, and especially in an ensemble, is a unique experience. Hence, it was clear and natural that I would broaden my knowledge in this field. Nevertheless, for my BA studies, I picked more “useful” studies and took computers and mathematics, and also took a few music, art, and philosophy courses ‘on the side.’ I was in the middle of my MA studies in mathematics when music’s pull became too strong to resist. I turned to MA studies in music and never looked back… Today, I am engaged in music as a university researcher and professor and, as mentioned above, also as an active musician in the Carmel string quartet. What makes me most happy is seeing my children enjoying music and making their own way (and not necessarily my way!) in jazz, musicals, composing, or musical arraignment.

Just a second—mathematics, computers, and music? Do you ever get to combine them all?

In my primary research, I focus on the stylistic changes in eighteenth-century music. It seems nothing connects this subject to mathematics and computers, and until now, anybody who worked in this field used the well-known and practiced methods of historical research and musical analysis. My toolbox enables me, naturally, to combine these methods with other techniques, especially those in the field of data science. Instead of an in-depth analysis of a number of representative musical works, I superficially analyze approximately 1,500 musical pieces. Then I analyzed the received data using statistical analytic tools to identify gradual changes and trends that accumulate into a style exchange. Even conceptually, my research relies on understanding the composition world as a dynamic system that moves between moments of (relative) stability (but never stagnation…) and instability.

When I started applying this approach to my doctoral studies, I was rather isolated. There were some enthusiastic responses to my work, but others felt that the statistical techniques were alien to humanities. Today, perhaps due to the relative availability of big data online and via data analysis and management programs, data-driven research is becoming very popular. Thus, as it happened, the “wrong turn” I took at the beginning of my academic carrier played to my advantage, and I find myself at the forefront of contemporary research.

Another new focus of mine these days connects the perception of musical work from the eighteenth century and the general perception of “things” in the world. Here too, mathematical and scientific thinking are required, for mathematics was used to explain phenomena in the world, and thus, the direction those explanations took reflects the perception of the explained objects. I show how, for example, alongside the rise of the differential mathematics (bringing a sequence of things closer together by breaking them into many lines or small rectangles), there is also a new perception of music, from viewing it as a continuous thing to something that is dismountable. Some of that period’s music composition books, even present combinatorial calculations tools (at the time, fresh out of the workshop!) to calculate how many melodies can be composed using a fixed number of notes—three notes, four, five, and so on.

Which academic studies do you think fit best with music studies?

If you love music, any other field you choose can fit. Specifically, music and psychology open a window to musical cognitive research and music therapy; mathematics, engineering, or computers bring you to the world of musical technologies. But in any combination, engaging in music will transform your studies from training to an enriched experience.

What are the most important tools or abilities for those specializing in humanities?

Curiosity! If you are curious, you continuously encounter new things. If you are curious, you ask questions about those things. If you are curious, you seek suitable tools to answer those questions, and any question invites a unique set of tools. And, if you are curious, you won’t put things to rest until you find an answer.

Peeking into your workbag or study, what interesting, perhaps surprising, object might we see there?

You will find the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by nineteenth-century English author, Lewis Carol. There are so many things that appeal to me in that book. Carol sees everything from a unique angle; he interprets every word, sentence, and English phrase freshly and originally. He refines the absurd from any situation and challenges us readers not to take anything for granted, but to think about it critically and with vivacity—and he does it all with tremendously stimulating imagination and humoristic, jaunty, and engaging writing. A perfect mix!