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  • We = Rock (You)
Aug 2010
Aug. 30, 2010 — I’ve listened to “Radio Ga Ga” maybe a hundred times in the past couple of weeks. Sure, most music fans sniff at this 1984 Queen song, dismissing it as an excruciating low point in the band’s otherwise (mostly) distinguished career. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, though – for the pulsating analog synth line, for the goofy lyrics apparently addressed to Freddie Mercury’s transistor radio. Anyway, it’s on one of the few CDs I have in the car these days as I drive willy nilly around the Northeast. So I’ve really had little choice in the matter.

On the eighty-eighth or eighty-ninth spin – on a lonely stretch of the Garden State Parkway, somewhere north of the GW Bridge – I suddenly recalled an article I’d recently read about Queen guitarist Brian May, something about him publishing a book of 19th-century stereoscopic photographs of a particular village in England. At first this would seem too random to be true, I decided – like, say, “Naomi Campbell Testifies In War Crimes Trial” – but like the latter story, it was altogether factual. May, it seems, is a bit of a renaissance man.

Consider this: the lanky guitarist – a driving force behind one of the biggest-selling bands of all time – is also a trained astrophysicist. He was working toward his PhD at Imperial College London when Queen began to take off, and left the program to pursue the band full time. But he always maintained an interest in physics and mathematics. In 2007, more than 30 years after putting it aside, he completed his dissertation: A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud. Today he serves as chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, in Liverpool, England.

A few weeks ago, in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, May explained how his physics training contributed to the recording of one of Queen’s most enduring songs: “We Will Rock You” (better known today, perhaps, as that “stamp-stamp-clap” song sports fans are so fond of). The band wanted the rhythm track to sound as if the listener were in the middle of a concert hall filled to the rafters, so they recorded themselves stamping on a bunch of boards lying around the old church in which they were working.

“But being a physicist,” May continued, “I said, ‘Suppose there were 1,000 people doing this; what would be happening?’ And I thought, ‘Well, you would be hearing them stamping. You would also be hearing a little bit of an effect, which is due to the distance that they are from you.’ So I put lots of individual repeats on them. Not an echo but a single repeat at various distances. And the distances were all prime numbers.”

Pretty clever, don’t you think?

How about you? No doubt there are all kinds of physicist-musicians out there. Are you one of them? If so, has science ever helped you with recording or performing? Has music ever helped you with science?

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