Students in The Physics of Music learn to apply science principles to their music

Apr 02, 2015

A white PVC pipe, a newly drilled hole and a cork—somehow these simple materials and some careful blowing should produce a perfectly tuned musical note, G4. But even the most talented musicians were challenged by this exercise as they carefully crafted simple flutes in a course called The Physics of Music. They were learning and applying physics principles behind sound and pitch.

“I play violin and this is a lot harder,” says Joy Pelikan ’18, who plays in the College’s String Ensemble. “But it’s been really interesting to learn more about sound.”

Most of the students enrolled in the course are majoring in academic programs in the arts and/or perform with North Central College ensembles. Among the 16 course participants were accomplished brass, strings and woodwind players, in addition to students who want to pursue careers in fields like sound design and music therapy.

A flute player in the class, Maya Adra ’18, knew better than to blow too hard when trying to achieve the desired pitch. “The direction of the air flow and a steady air stream is the secret,” she told her classmates.

The final challenge of the lab was to play the song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in a classroom concert.

The course is taught by David Horner, Harold and Eva White Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and professor of chemistry and physics. He designed the curriculum as part of a plan to offer specialized physics topics that would intrigue liberal arts majors. His own musical background includes playing clarinet and saxophone in the orchestra for North Central College musicals. He even directed the College’s athletic band before the instrumental music program was restored in the early 1990s.

“I thought Physics of Music would interest students who participate in music while allowing them to fulfill their Gen Ed science requirement,” Horner explains. “But more than that, there’s a lot of cool physics related to music. And in preparing for this course, I’ve enjoyed learning about my own musical instruments.” His musical and academic interests have resulted in an experiment about Fourier synthesis (a method of electronically constructing a signal with a specific, desired periodic waveform) and a Fourier analysis of musical tones that could be adopted in the future as part of the physics course sequence for science majors.

In addition to lectures and labs, the 10-week Physics of Music course included a field trip to the Naperville Carillon, where the professional carillonneur, Tim Sleep ’70, gave a tour of the tower and instrument.

“As a result of this course, I hope students become a bit more proficient in using their analytical thinking skills,” says Horner. “And I hope they better appreciate the things they learn in their study of music and take away the idea that science and math can help them understand music better or in a new and different way.”