Music & Architecture

“Music is the occult metaphysical exercise of a soul not knowing that it philosophizes”.

Arthur Schopenhauer, quoted in Shapiro, An Encyclopedia of Quotations about Music (1978)

When I was 17, my mother kept staring at an art project that I had done which she had not seen before, and after a minute or two she asked, “why does this painting remind me of Swan Lake?” Completely baffled and surprised by her question, I answered: “I was listening to Swan Lake while working on it!” Little that I knew that this small exchange would become a core foundation on which I would build much of my research and work on. A decade or so later while I was in Graduate School, I revisited this question again. Why did whatever I drew (which looked absolutely nothing like Swan Lake) remind my mother of this ballet? Did I unknowingly translate something from Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece onto the painting, and did she unknowingly pick up on it? If so, then what is this invisible, intangible quality that is shared between both arts that our human brains implicitly recognizes, without actually explicitly knowing that it did? It was with questions like these in mind that I plunged into my Architectural Master’s Thesis research and dissertation, culminating into my award winning project and book based on the relationship between music and architecture.

Growing up in my early teens, I wanted to become a rock-star. Music has been a very good friend to me during my not-so-great middle and high school experiences, and I often credit music for giving me the fuel and will to make something out of myself. Through music, I learned a lot about complex subject matters like philosophy, geometry, critical thinking, psychology … etc ; all of which having absolutely nothing to do with music … but somehow, it was the bridge that made all these other topics seem easier to comprehend. I was very dedicated to becoming a musician and spent hours practicing every single day. However, I felt all that work was in vain when my scholarship application was rejected from Berklee’s College of Music (my dream school). I was completely heartbroken. I was very demotivated, so I quit … this ended up being a huge regret. Coming from an architectural family, I then focused on studying architecture instead. I hated it at first, but the more time I spent immersing myself into the design field, the more I started to enjoy spending my time practicing it. Soon, the same dedication and sheer force of will that I had exhibited with music started to transform into a love of architecture.

It soon dawned at me that what I loved to do is create experiences that speak to human emotion – whether it was working in music or architecture. I believe that I tapped into the same aspect of the brain and soul when producing work that I loved, and wondered if others felt the same. Revisiting this idea of translating the invisible aspects of one art form to the other, I studied how others have done it in the past. I soon realized that all that spoke about this connection between both arts have used western music as a base plane. I questioned whether if using Arabic music instead would yield different results, and have analyzed a number of minarets of Islamic Cairo and found that they adhere to the same proportional intervals of the Arabic Maqams (Arabic Musical Scales). I soon began developing a theory that music, architecture, and many different art forms all fall under the same cultural umbrella that share an abstract organizational pattern formed in our brains which we then use unknowingly when creating art. Unlocking this pattern is what fascinates me the most, and it is what I use to drive my architectural designs today.

I am currently the Director and Principle Architect of RiadArchitecture, and my clients would tell you that during our first meeting I would ask them a series of questions regarding to their appreciation of music. I want to know what moves them, what drives them, and what abstract organizational patterns may they be more inclined towards; I get a much better sense of all of this by knowing what is in their musical library. While I can design for the collective by understanding the patterns evident in the region’s music, I can do the same thing for my own personal clients. It gets me closer to understanding and deciphering the hidden aspects of their personality and thought process that they themselves may not be completely aware of. This allows me to design something very personalized that speaks to their core essence. Many architects and design practices can do a great job in providing a service that responds to the given brief – but very few take these few tiny steps further in trying to design something that speaks to the intellect, heart and soul. I believe that by our method of deconstructing our clients’ aesthetic and musical inclinations, we may be on the verge of taking a few steps towards creating the architectural manifestation of themselves.

For more on my thoughts about music & architecture, you are invited to check out my book “Al Masmaa – The Place for Listening” on (click link here).


Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture