The Music Of Chemistry

Three fascinations have filled my life: Science, Business and Music.  Creativity is the art and discipline of noticing connections between things.  This prompted me to write a piece about the connections between music and chemistry.

Newlands Octaves

It was Döbereiner that first noticed the idea of patterns of the elements.  In 1828, he proposed the notion that the elements could be classified into triads, based on their properties.  It took 30 more years for French geologist de Chancourtois’ to develop the idea.  de Chancourtois’ organised the elements by their atomic weights and published his work in 1863.  However, his ideas were largely ignored by the scientific community.  He used geological terms to describe his insight and I’d hazard a guess that intellectual snobbery may have played a part in their rejection of his insights.  There are important lessons for innovators and influencers here in terms of what psychologists call “Cognitive Dissonance”.

Lesson for Innovators

Work in the language of your target audience!

In 1865, John Newland came up with his theory of octaves for the elements.  He organised the elements into groups of 8 and using music as a means of explaining his theories to the Chemical Society in 1866, who refused to publish his work, suggesting that it was frivolous.  There were also some flaws in Newland’s theory as some elements did not quite ‘fit’ the law of octaves. Again, I hazard a guess that the force-fitting of science into a musical model may have detracted from the potency of his ideas.  Although he was quite close to the answer, his model did not quite explain reality.

Ensure your model explains reality

It took a few more years before Mendeleev produced the essential breakthrough of what we now consider the basis of the modern periodic table. Mendeleev came from Siberia and was fond of playing patience on long railway journeys and laid out all the elements that had been discovered on cards, trying to figure out the patterns of elements with similar properties.  When elements refused to fit the pattern, he amended their weights for greater coherence.  We must remember that the methods used to assess atomic weight were fairly rudimentary.  Rather than attempting to force fit all the elements into his pre-ordained model, Mendeleev left spaces in the model for elements which did not appear to have been discovered at that time.  As new elements were found, they confirmed Mendeleev’s predictions.

Mendeleev’s naïve use of card games are part of a suite of tools and techniques I taught at MBA level to encourage systematic creativity and innovation.  Contact me for more details of the “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise” programme.

Mendeleev’s periodic table from 1871

Ensure your theories can be pressure tested

Spot patterns that nobody else has

Take long rail journeys to reflect!

Footnote: I’m not sure it’s essential to travel on the Trans-Siberian Express in order to produce breakthrough innovations!  Although I am writing this on the High-Speed Train to London.  I’m deliberately taking the long route around the Kent coastline, taking nearly 3 hours instead of the 42 minutes to London.  This gives me 3 hours of internet free peace to do more important things than respond to tweets and so on.  So far I have not split the atom, however …

These stories illustrate the powerful forces that can operate to prevent a new idea or concept from coming into being.  They point towards the need for inventors and innovators to understand and navigate such barriers if breakthrough ideas are to come into being.  They are also great examples of pattern spotting as a creative act and the need for purposeful reflection.  More insights into the creative process in the book “Brain-Based Enterprises”.


Peter Cook
Peter Cook
PETER leads Human Dynamics, offering Business and Organisation Development. He also delivers keynotes around the world that blend business intelligence with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Author of and contributor to twelve books on business leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham, and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. His blends his three passions are science, business, and music into unique inspiring keynotes based on the art of storytelling. His early life involved leading innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for HIV/AIDS, Herpes and the development of Human Insulin. 18 years in academia teaching MBAs and 18 + years running his businesses. All his life since the age of four playing music. Peter won a prize for his work from Sir Richard Branson after his mother claimed he was a Virgin birth. He now writes for

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