Nobel Prize winner: Here’s what science can learn from musicians

Nobel Prize winner: Here’s what science can learn from musicians


norman lebrecht

June 19, 2015

When Thomas Südhof won the 2013 Nobel Prize for medicine/physiology, he gave credit to his music teacher for the important advances he had made in discovering ‘ vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.’

He spoke again soon after, in a conversation with the editor of a bassoon magazine, underlining the value of the discipline he had acquired from immersion in music, while lamenting that classical music in the US is ‘fundamentally a dying art.’


sudhof nobel


Now, for the first time, Dr Südhof has spoken about the specifics of his musical training and its relation to scientific practice. In an exclusive interview with Stuart Diamond of Empowered Doctor, he emphasises the importance of one-on-one teaching and the importance of ‘hard, unimaginative, non-creative, repetitive work.’

Here’s what he says, with a linking paragraph by Dr Diamond:

DR. SÜDHOF: First, I was exposed to playing music in school, the recorder. Then I began the violin. I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t like the teacher. Perhaps it was the age, possibly the instrument. So I stopped playing the violin on my own initiative. But after a while, I decided I needed to do some music. So I picked the bassoon. I have no idea why. It may have been after all the subtle hints of some of my teachers. I doubt it was my parents. It may have been that I liked those sonorous deep sounds.

In my own experience playing bassoon puts you in immediate demand. You are courted by any number of ensembles, whether or not you could actually play adequately. But that was not the case with the young Thomas. When he first started to play where he grew up in Germany, there was no youth-training orchestra. So he simply took lessons and played on his own. As he grew older he became more accomplished and played in the State Youth Orchestra and traveled with the group throughout Europe. He considered the possibility of pursuing a career as a professional musician. Though acknowledging how satisfying a career as professional musician could be, he was also well aware of the hard realities of life as an artist. I then asked him exactly what he meant when he said his bassoon teacher was his most important teacher. Did he really mean that?

sudhof 16

DR. SÜDHOF: Yes I do. I think, that in general, teaching is extremely dependent on personal relationships. It is important that one has teachers, who you can personally respect – a whole persona you can see. It is true in science as well in music, as well as other aspects of life. My bassoon teacher was the typical German musician that went through the system, learned how to be a bassoonist, and became an orchestra bassoonist in Hanover. He taught me from day one. I only had one teacher ever. He wasn’t set though on turning me into a professional musician. But he was set on having a certain degree of quality instilled in me. What I mean, when I say he was my most important teacher is that I see playing music very much akin to many of the other things I do. In that playing music requires above all a lot of practice and hard work. Creativity is not just imagining stuff. You can’t be creative if you have no mastery of the medium. Some people master the medium, but are never creative. So it’s not like you master the medium and you are automatically creative. But if you don’t master the medium you will never be creative. You will never be good. That relates to what I do as a scientist. It also relates to what doctors do, in that you can’t be good at it, unless you are really technically outstanding. And to become outstanding takes just a lot of hard unimaginative, non-creative, repetitive work. That is most of what we do. And that is the absolute prerequisite. In that sense it is the same as in music.

Read the full, fascinating interview here.



  • Innocent bystander says:

    Quelle surprise !
    Classical music ( its core repertoire produced mainly by ‘dead white males’ and its greatest works — quelle malheure– by Germans and Austrians ) produced something ‘relevant’ after all ?
    I was under the impression that classical music had lost most of its justification as it doesn’t conform to today’s enlightened moral standards, its continuing demise hence not being undeserved and eagerly anticipated by some.
    So should we still listen to Bach, Beethoven,Chopin, Wagner, Messiaen despite their glaring shortcomings in many departments ?
    ( Bach using bible texts which don’t portray Jewish people very favourably, Beethoven condoning rape in his 9th symphony, Chopin and Wagner being antisemites, Messiaen a devout catholic, representing a misogynistic religion… to name just a few of the numerous sinners here ).
    I need guidance now….please help.

  • CME | Center for Musical Excellence says:

    Mr. Lebrecht – Thanks for bringing this interview to our attention, we’ve shared it with our fans online! Being a music non-profit with a mission to Move Musicians Forward, what Thomas Südhof says really speaks to us and the musicians we work with. We’re launching CME Academy in NJ this year and hope to change the model of US music education (well, one step at a time!) and create a cultural hub where music is shared, performed and celebrated amongst multiple generations. Not merely offering lessons, we have engaged young instrumental and vocal artists to run informal talks and seminars about areas of music they’re passionate about: from composers to composition process, even giving folks a chance at conducting. Come visit us!

  • Michael Endres says:

    Excellent link and I agree with Innocent bystander !
    I read a few of the highly interesting articles and was reminded of Charles Rosen’s excellent book “Freedom and the Arts”.

    It is a lamentable fact that academic discussions about classical music these days seem to focus on measuring Art and Literature of previous centuries against today’s views on PC and how society should function, politics and ideologies increasingly permeating every aspect of it.
    Hence an Elgar symphony is viewed first and foremost as an affirmation of British imperialism, whether the symphony has any qualities as a piece of music is of comparatively little interest.
    It coincides with the “relevance” issue. As Charles Rosen pointed out :
    “Making it relevant is generally the commercial –or ideological– excuse for this approach.”
    The approach meaning: “…setting aside the history of its reception and regarding the tradition as if it were just created today .” ( from: Charles Rosen : “Old Wisdom and Newfangled Theory:Two One -Way Streets to Disaster” , Harvard University Press 2012, Chapter 28 ).

    I was lucky enough having met Denis Dutton ( he was a colleague of mine at the UC in NZ ) whose encyclopaedic knowledge in Music and cultural philosophy were an invaluable eye-opener for an ivory tinkler like myself.
    ( I can highly recommend his book “The Arts Instinct” and of course the mighty , which he founded ).

    Back to basics then: learning an instrument, experiencing music first hand is important,in many ways, and that is what Thomas Südhof clearly states.
    Summarised in four words: we need music education.
    Which is actually happening as I am typing at a Gargantuan scale in …….. Asia,
    where the future of classical music probably will take place.

  • Alex says:

    I think it would only be a surprise to someone unfamiliar with science that there should be a commonality between science and the arts (particularly music). I am a scientist and, although I never learned to play an instrument, classical music has always been a part of my world. I’ve also known a number of scientists who were talented musicians. My institute, a national laboratory, has its own musical society where we are treated to performances by many remarkable musicians (only recently we had a recital from Virginia Black). Sadly however, at 47 I am often the youngest person who attends these concerts and the bulk of the audience are retired…