“Denoting Organic Chemistry with Music” with Sherman Leung

Interview by Caroline Zhang

Tell me more about your project.

My project defines a musical model for organic compounds that uses music theory and musical notation to explain and model various chemical properties of organic molecules. The significance of the study lies in its novel approach to combine an unexplored link between music and chemistry. Marking the first time music has been used to understand a scientific field, this study is unparalleled not only in its attempt to model chemistry, but also in its unprecedented approach that it takes to establish music as a model for scientific understanding.

How did you arrive at this topic?

It started as a University of Chicago essay where I was asked to describe a nonscientific method. I had background in piano and was taking organic chemistry at the time because I like science and I also like music so putting them together would be nonscientific. What started as an essay turned it into an article. I had originally submitted it to the Journal of Chemical Education but did not want to go through editing the process, so I withdrew my manuscript.

What were some successes and challenges?

It worked both chemically and musically. I liked the idea you had seven notes and seven valence electrons. I had chemical structures that I wanted to imitate, so I bent my model to fit it. At the same time, there is stereochemistry and other topics that my model cannot account for. I reached a point where I cannot model anything more complex than I found. I applied for a Davidson Fellows Scholarship for an outstanding and innovative project where I sent in a video of me playing some of the music.  

Other than organic chemistry, what else do you think you can apply music and art to learning?

You can relate math to music; for example, if you have a math proof, you can turn it into music. There are a lot of studies between music and psychology as well. My project is among the first to take music and chemistry together. 

What is the most important thing you want people to take away from your research?

You don’t have to look at science with a scientific lens. There are a lot of different perspectives in how to understand science. This model is an example of that different perspective. The more perspectives you have, the more knowledge you can derive from it. 

What are your future plans?

I did a lot of research throughout high school and worked in a lab every summer. I am currently looking at computer science and biology and maybe finding a common ground between the two. As for now, I want to go to medical school but I am also considering CS.