Campus & Community

Harvard Senior Sounds Out Future With Rare Combined Degree

4 min read

A certain chord will strike a certain reaction in certain people. The dynamic underlying that reaction is something Aaron Einbond may spend the rest of his life pursuing.

The Crestwood, N.Y., native, who is graduating from Harvard this week with a rare combined degree in music and physics, is fascinated with the dynamics of sound. As both a classical music composer and a budding scientist, Einbond is anxious to unlock the mysteries behind what pleases the ear and why.

“What makes music meaningful?” he wonders. “What are the scientific bases for the structures that musicians talk about?” The inquisitive Einbond may seek the answers to those questions over the next two years as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge in England. He begins his postgraduate studies in the fall.

“I might, while I’m at Cambridge, pursue some connections between science and music,” Einbond explains. “They have a professor who works in the music department there who is very interested in the cognitive science of the perception of music. That’s not exactly physics, but it certainly involves biophysics techniques, so that might be something I explore while I’m there.

“I don’t have very much experience in the field, but I’m certainly interested in the possibilities it seems to offer,” he says.

Einbond’s fascination with science can be traced to his mother, who’s a biologist at City University of New York. His captivation with music, however, has paternal roots. Before becoming an English professor, Einbond’s father was a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey in Pennsylvania.

“It’s interesting talking to my thesis adviser, who grew up in a musical atmosphere in Argentina surrounded by Catholic Masses,” Einbond says. “And it’s interesting to see him meet somebody who, as a young person, knew rock ‘n’ roll better than classical music.”

As Einbond grew older, his early exposure to popular music grew into a passion for classical music. “I started composing around the seventh grade, and when I went away to college, I wanted to keep writing music, and being a half-music major was one way to continue doing that while also gaining more knowledge in the theoretical music courses.”

Einbond defines his compositions as “contemporary, classical music – music for classical instruments, classical ensembles – from chamber to vocal to orchestral.” His work has been greatly influenced by Fanny P. Mason Professor of Music Mario Davidovsky. “Professor Davidovsky has been very demanding in terms of causing me to call into question things that he doesn’t think are well thought out, and to really examine why I do what I do,” Einbond says. “So there have been some times when it was difficult – not in the same way that a physics problem set is difficult, but difficult in a more personal way.”

While attending Harvard, Einbond studied music and physics along separate tracks. “I wasn’t doing anything combined [with the two disciplines],” Einbond says. “I basically took it as an opportunity to explore the two things that I was interested in.” As disparate as his two interests are, Einbond managed to merge them into a unique double-concentration at a school he felt was “unilaterally excellent in a wide range of fields.”

Being selected as a Marshall Scholar affords Einbond the luxury of “taking a vacation from the direct academic track,” while also allowing him to pursue a master’s degree in composition at the University of Cambridge. “I actually think of the scholarship as an opportunity to relieve myself of having to apply to a Ph.D. program directly from college, and give myself two years…to try to get a better idea of what I might want to study.”

No matter what path Einbond eventually chooses to travel, one gets the impression he’ll get where he wants to go, and he’ll strike a lot of high notes along the way.