The Physics of Sound and Music - Senior SPARK
This course is no longer being offered.
This course aims to teach students how sounds are created and what makes certain sounds musical. This will involve an introduction to wave mechanics and exploration of the physics behind such musical principles as timbre, pitch, volume, intonation, intervals, harmony, and scales. We will examine how different instruments create sound and why we perceive them as different. Music is an enduring and universal part of the human experience, and understanding the physics that underlies musical phenomena will enhance an interest in and enjoyment of both music and natural science.
Think about the variety of musical sounds you hear in your life. Violins sound dramatically different from trombones; you would never mistake one for the other. Human voices are tremendously varied and versatile. A marimba sounds nothing like an over-amplified electric guitar. And yet these differing sounds also share a lot in common and they can work together to produce rich, complex sound textures. In this course you will learn the physics of sound, understand what sound waves are, analyze sound waves, and synthesize and create interesting sounds.
We will explore such questions as: How do musical instruments work, and why do we perceive their sounds as different? Why do we feel that some intervals (perfect fourths and fifths, for example) sound settled and pleasant while others (minor seconds, tritones) set our teeth on edge? How do sounds travel from one place to another? How can a nearly silent electric guitar send "sound" through a wire to a blaring amplifier? Why does the size and shape of a room make a difference when we listen to music? As we think about these questions, we will learn what a physicist means when she describes sound as a kind of wave. It may seem crazy, but many of the questions we have about sound and music can be answered by learning about how waves behave. In this course we will explore various sounds through a series of experiments. For example, we will construct a variety of simple musical instruments, discovering how different kinds of instruments make sound by different mechanisms. We will look at a disassembled violin to see how its vibrating strings cause the violin's body to "breathe" air in and out of its f-holes hundreds of times per second. We will use oscilloscopes to "see" the differences among the clean sound of a flute, the dirty sound of an amplified harmonica, the dark, rich sound of a cello, and the bright, clear sound of a trumpet.
Students in this course will learn what sound is and how sounds are created. They will come home with an understanding of how human hearing works and why we perceive different instruments, different pitches, and different volumes differently. They will receive an introduction to wave mechanics and they will use their knowledge of waves to begin understanding the physics that underlie such musical principles as timbre, harmony, intonation, and scales.
An interest in music is important for the students in this course. Knowledge of formal music theory is not necessary, though it is certainly welcome. Students should feel comfortable interpreting graphs and performing simple algebra.
*This Senior SPARK course is designed for students currently in 8th grade (entering 9th grade Fall 2013). Younger students are encouraged to register for our Junior SPARK courses.