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The Science of Music: Why Music Degrees Should Include Musical Acoustics

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Sophomore independent major Sarah Batres wrote this op-ed piece for the “Writing About Science” class offered in May Term 2012

For the past nine years, I have been a clarinetist.  Yet, as a Southwestern University music student, I never once stopped to think: How does music differ from sound?  What turns sound into music? My encyclopedic brain,blurted out “music involves the art of combining sound with expression into specific forms and sound involves the transmittance of vibrations through the air from a moving object.” Despite my dictionary prowess, I still could not answer one important question: What turns sound into music? In my frenzy to discover the underlying nature of music, I learned that the answer occurs within musical acoustics.

Dr. Bill O’Brien, a physics professor at Southwestern University, describes musical acoustics as the study of “the manifold aspects of the sensory experience called sound; its creation by the motion of matter, its propagation as waves through a medium and its perception by a sentient intelligence, giving particular attention to  that wonderful subset of sounds that we recognize as music.” Musical acoustics teaches topics from specific causes of all sound to what makes certain sounds clash. Musical acoustics goes beyond the rehearsal room and even allows the determination of a car’s speed by discerning the frequency of an engine’s sound by analyzing its specific pitch.

I believe that to really know and be able to teach music, one must know the science behind how it exists. Music educators learn to teach music, but often do not receive instruction about the particular science of sound that allows for the creation of music. This undermines the holistic value of their education. Without it, music educators just robotically respond to sounds for which they have been trained to listen -  but don’t understand why.  To address this absence of knowledge, I believe that it should be required for those students pursuing degrees in the education of music to take a Musical Acoustics class. After all, I wouldn’t want our music educators to be deprived of the knowledge of the physical basis of music, where it comes from, and how it is made.

As a child, I learned of the famous musicians of history such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner who composed well-known pieces for well-to-do people. Wagner even composed for King Ludwig II for a time.  UK writer and composer John Broadhouse, author of Musical Acoustics; or, the Phenomena of Sound as Connected with Music, questions if “these great masters would have composed better music had they been acquainted with the scientific phenomena of sound.” Today, the technology exists to produce visual representations of sound (via graphs of note waveforms) that enhance auditory interpretation of music.

Whenever I produce a note by playing clarinet, it creates waves from vibrations that hit the ear drum and produce sound. When the air pressure tightens or restricts, different wavelengths occur due to the frequency of vibrations changing and different sounds will come out. When two notes are played together that have similar but not whole ratio frequencies, the notes clash and the waves cancel each other out, causing an unpleasant sound. Think of it as two people simultaneously singing: one singing Happy Birthday and the other singing the Star Spangled Banner. The sounds don’t fit together. It takes sound to create music.  Therefore the knowledge of sound is important to produce the music that sound creates.

In English schools such as Cambridge and London University, students pursuing music education degrees must complete an examination with advanced proficiency in Acoustics as part of their requirements to complete a degree in music. Musical acoustics allows their students to get a “trained ear” so that they can immediately tell if vocalists or instrumentalists sound off in pitch or timing. They learn the scientific reasoning behind elements such as the clashes of sound and can fix them accordingly. Some of the top schools in America such as Stanford, NYU, and the University of California require that students take a Musical Acoustics class to graduate with a degree in music.  We should follow by example and incorporate Musical Acoustics into our curriculum at Southwestern University.

I believe an education in music would be incomplete without the science behind the sound: musical acoustics. Music blends the art of emotion and the science of sound. Without the science of sound, there can be no music.