6. Richard Feynman's Sum of Histories -------------------------------------- Previous - Next - Contents
If you have listened to some of my online MP3 recordings you may have wondered
why I prefer fade outs for most of the songs rather than regular
endings. There are two reasons for that.
The Nobel laureate and brilliant 20th Century physicist Richard Feynman formulated a way of thinking about the uncertainty in quantum mechanics surrounding the properties and movements of the tiniest building blocks of our universe, which appear to be both particles and waves at the same time.
In his sum over histories principle Feynman states that "if there are alternative ways in which a given outcome can be achieved, then there is a sense in which the alternate histories all happen, and happen simultaneously."
Let me explain what this means. Imagine I am standing at the very Southern
end of Mooloolaba beach, at the "Spit", the stone pier extending into the
sea (just to the left of the four high rise buildings on the
I decide to walk back along the beach and in due course arrive at the Surf Club, no problem.
But what if a tiny electron or a photon (light particle-wave) were to do the same thing ? Starting from the same point at the Spit where I walked back from it travels to the Surf Club in an instant (at the speed of light). But when it arrives it appears as if it has got there by using all four alternative paths : the surf, the beach, walking trail and main road (plus many other possible pathways) all at the same time *. Weird ? Tell me about it ! But reality, as we are starting to discover now, is quite amazing, and very different from what we have always believed it to be.
Back to music. Strangely enough I see a clear parallel between
Feynman's sum over histories and the creativity of Jazz
improvisation. A song generally consists of two components, a
melody line and an underlying succession of chords (a socalled "chord progression") which give the song colour and mood. The
melody and chords of course do not clash but are in harmony with one
Over a song's chord progression we can create an
infinite number of other melodies, the only restraint being that a
melody should not clash but be in harmony with the chord progression.
This is exactly what the Jazz improvisor does. He creates an
instant new melody over the given chord sequence, within the constraints
of his musical knowledge and understanding, technical skills and creative
imagination. Every performer will have his own unique approach to a song
and over time, as his familiarity and emotional insight into the song
increases, his improvisations will improve in terms of meaning and
So like in Feynman's sum over histories principle, there are
numerous improvised melodic pathways from a song's beginning to its end.
But since we are no tiny electrons or photons but large clumsy human
beings we cannot perform all possible pathways at the same time. Instead
we must be content to play our improvised melodies one after the other.
The nearest thing (in terms of musical performance) to the quantum sum over histories
theory is probably the group improvisation by Trad Jazz bands (we called
them "Dixieland bands" in Holland), where trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bas, drums, piano,
banjo each follow there own unique path through the chord progression of a song, while all
The nearest thing (in terms of musical performance) to the quantum sum over histories theory is probably the group improvisation by Trad Jazz bands (we called them "Dixieland bands" in Holland), where trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bas, drums, piano, banjo each follow there own unique path through the chord progression of a song, while all playing simultaneously.
Copyright © 2010 Michael Furstner