The music-to-tech bridge goes both ways

Written by Ced Kurtz on .

At a Doobie Brothers concert at Penn State many years ago, TechMan saw guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, adorned with headphones and his distinctive walrus mustache, sitting on a stool wailing on the electric guitar.

That same Skunk, who was a founding member of Steely Dan and in 1966 played with Jimi Hendrix in a band called "Jimmy James and the Blue Flames," is now one of the country's foremost experts on missile defense.

Mr. Baxter is a somewhat unusual case.

His interest in music-recording technology led him to wonder about data-compression algorithms and large-capacity storage devices created for military use. A neighbor bought Mr. Baxter a subscription to an aviation magazine, provoking his interest in additional military-oriented publications and missile defense systems in particular.

He became self-taught in this area, and at one point he wrote a five-page paper that proposed converting the ship-based anti-aircraft Aegis missile into a rudimentary missile defense system. He gave the paper to California Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, and his career as a defense consultant began. Mr. Baxter now has a very high security clearance, consults for the Defense Department and has chaired a congressional advisory board on missile defense.

"My big thing is to look at existing technologies and try to see other ways they can be used, which happens in music all the time and happens to be what terrorists are incredibly good at," Skunk was quoted as saying.

Then there are those who go the other way, from technology to music.

Ray Kurzweil was an inventor and businessman. His company produced the Kurzweil Reading Machine, a device for the blind that turned text into speech, which caught the interest of musician Stevie Wonder,

The pair became friends, and in conversations the musician often lamented the inability of music synthesizers to reproduce the sounds of musical instruments accurately.

Mr. Kurzweil responded by forming a company and making the Kurzweil K250, which not only imitated instruments so well a musician could not tell the difference, but included groundbreaking abilities to record and mix that furthered the technique of sampling.

Music and computers are siblings through mathematics. The world of numbers is the language computers understand and also underlies the physics of sound that creates music. But obviously there is more to music than math -- there has never been a great mathematician who was also a great musician. But there is much crossover.

If you want to go deeper into this music-math relationship, TechMan recommends "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

Although far from beach reading, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book explores how mathematics, music, art and human intelligence intertwine.

And while you're reading it, listen to Skunk Baxter's guitar solo on Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."

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