New course about the physics of music

25 mars 2019

Meet Cecilia Gustavsson, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Physics and Astronomy who has created the course The Physics of Music, which will be offered for the first time in the spring semester of 2019.

Why have you started the course The Physics of Music?

“We lecturers are amateur musicians ourselves and we’re passionate about both music and the subject of physics. We believe that approaching physics from the music angle is an attractive way to approach it, particularly for those students who do not have a background in physics and have never seen themselves as potential physicists.

“Musical phenomena such as harmonies and scales can be explained by simple mathematical relationships and the characteristics of materials, and we feel that it can be really quite delightful to discover this. And of course, we also hope to attract new groups of students to the subject of physics and to broaden the knowledge of students already studying with us.”

How many students do you have for the course and what are their backgrounds?

“We have 20 students registered for this semester, and they have varying backgrounds. Some have studied physics or mathematics before, while others have a background in musicology. Some are also coming directly from high school and haven’t chosen a specific orientation for their studies as yet. The course does not belong to any particular programme. It’s a freestanding course, subject to general entry requirements.”

Are you collaborating with other departments?

“The course as it stands today is not interdisciplinary in the sense that the Department of Musicology is involved for example. It is being offered from solely the physics perspective. That said, it has great potential to be interdisciplinary.”

What do you teach in the course?

“We go through the characteristics of sound such as wavelength and frequency and discuss why different effects arise, but also how musical instruments function from a physics perspective. In string instruments, the note is created by a vibrating string that generates standing waves. Many people are aware that pitch depends on the length of the string, as in a harp or a grand piano, or the thickness of the string, as in a violin.

“The wind instrument family in fact functions in virtually the same way, except that what vibrates and gives rise to the standing waves is a column of air. For example, the pitch can be changed by changing the column of air – like when you cover or uncover holes or keys on an instrument, which is what you do when you play the flute or clarinet for example. This group also includes the human voice and the sounds that animals make!

“Then we also go through the very interesting concept of timbre, which is an aspect of what makes different instruments or voices sound different from each other, despite the fact that they are playing or singing exactly the same note. Timbre is the specific voice’s or instrument’s distribution of overtones on top of the fundamental tone. Overtones are higher-order standing waves that are generated by the same string or column of air but that have a shorter wavelength than the fundamental tone.”

Does the course include any practical components?  

“Yes, students get to do simulations of wave motions in data labs, where they get to see how these wave motions are reflected and propogated and how you can alter the motion of a wave.

“We also conduct two laboratory sessions in our mechanics lab – one on strings and one on pipes. In these sessions, the students learn about experimental methods and measure frequency and loudness among other things. And the course also includes a study visit: this year it will be to Uppsala Cathedral to take a look at the Cathedral’s pipe organs.”

What do you hope the students in this course to take home with them?

“That physics is an interesting subject that everyone can relate to in many everyday phenomena.”