A white PVC pipe, a newly drilled hole and a cork—these simple materials and some careful blowing are supposed to produce a perfectly tuned musical note, G4. That simple lab assignment always challenges students in the Physics of Music course, where they learn to apply physics principles behind sound and pitch. The final challenge is to play the song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in a classroom concert.
“I play violin and this is a lot harder,” said Joy Pelikan ’18, who performs in the College’s String Ensemble. “But it’s 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 music ensembles. Among the accomplished brass, strings and woodwind players are students who want to pursue careers in fields like sound design and music therapy.
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 course included a field trip to the Naperville Carillon, where the professional carillonneur, Tim Sleep ’70, gave a tour of the tower and instrument.
“I hope students become more proficient in using their analytical thinking skills.” David Horner, Harold and Eva White Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and professor of chemistry and physics
“I hope students become more proficient in using their analytical thinking skills,” says Horner. “And I hope they take away the idea that science and math can help them understand music better or in a new and different way.”