Professor Shares Passion for Chemistry & Music

Man playing piano
Professor John Berry plays at the Concert in Chemistry, February 2019. [Photo by Frank Weinhold]
By Kaylie Greuel
Department Communications

Microscopes and spectrometers aren’t the only instruments used within the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department
of Chemistry. Professor John Berry is dedicated to his scientific research at UW-Madison, but also has a passion for musical performance and composition. Berry, an avid violinist and violist, also leads a research group studying transition metal chemistry.

Though music and chemistry may seem to be polar opposites at first glance, they have a lot more in common than what we see on the surface. For example, both require a sense of inventiveness.

“There has to be a creative idea behind it,” Berry said, explaining how musicians create melodies they test with harmonies,
similar to how chemists create compounds they test with chemical reactions.

The end results are also similar in that sometimes the reaction works, and sometimes it needs some re-writing.

When asked about the similarities between composition and research, Berry said, “each note I put on the staff is an experiment.”

He explained that both have similar end goals and require a lot of hard work.

According to the Mead Witter School of Music at University of Wisconsin – Madison, almost one third of UW music majors choose to pair their music degree with another, proving that it is possible to pursue multiple interests at the collegiate level. But how do college students find the time to pursue multiple hobbies while seeking a scientific degree?

“It’s a valid concern,” Berry said, “Ultimately, you have to make value judgements on how you spend your time.”

When Berry pursued his two majors in music theory and chemistry at Virginia Tech, he was able to successfully balance his time between his interests.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it … you just have to follow your passion,” he said.

This same sense of passion is important in both music and chemistry, according to Berry. Obtaining a degree in any field, let alone degrees in two different fields, is a long journey that requires hard work, but he also emphasizes the importance of motivation and passion, which are things that cannot always be taught.