The Science of Sound
Music is a complex art form with foundations in math and science. The art of music production involves engineering, design, and multiple technologies that integrate to create the final work that is shared with the world. As we celebrate Music in our Schools Month, let’s take a look at how the A in STEAM relates to STEM.
Think about a song that makes you want to sing along. The most obvious contributor to that work of art is the artist whose voice you hear. He or she uses their vocal folds, more commonly known as vocal cords, to belt out a tune that moves you to dance or inspires you to conquer the world.
On the other end of the spectrum, listeners of music respond and connect through the hearing process. A wave enters the ear canal and vibrates the tympanic membrane (eardrum), then mechanical energy is created by three tiny bones in the middle ear that amplify those vibrations. Finally, the cilia in our ears pick up those movements and transduce the energy to electrical signals that allow our brains to process the energy as sound, which is music to this former Biology teacher’s ears.
The harmonious sounds we hear when we listen to a song is largely due to the talents and skills of an audio engineer. He or she works on the technical aspects of the recording, including the selection and placement of microphones, operating and setting the recording equipment, and decides on the appropriate acoustic environment to capture the musical performance. He or she is also responsible for mastering the track following mixing, equalizing, and manipulating sound effects to produce the perfect balance of sonic elements.
The voice is only one of many musical instruments. For percussion instruments, sound and rhythm are created through the striking of membranes. String instruments like the guitar for example, must have the right strings for the instrument as well as for the desired artistic sound (timbre). Wind instruments create sound when air passes over a thin piece called a reed, causing it to vibrate. Designing an instrument to create a precise sound requires engineering in multiple forms throughout the manufacturing process. The artist chooses the right sound to express what they are trying to convey in their musical score.
From the numeric sequences and patterns used in melodies and rhythms to musical notation and music production, music and math cannot be separated. Math is the foundation of all musical performance. For example, when a string is plucked on a guitar, the string vibrates at a particular rate. This rate of vibration is measured in Hertz (Hz) and depends on 4 factors of the strings: length, tension, density, and thickness. When a guitar player places his or her finger on a string and holds it securely against the neck of the guitar, they are shortening the length of that string and increasing the resonant frequency and pitch. The string itself can be thought of as a wavelength – the shorter the wavelength or string, the higher the pitch (frequency). The longer the wavelength or string, the lower the pitch (frequency). We have to do the math to solve this physical phenomenon using a formula:
This all culminates together to become the music that we hear. Music and the Arts are everywhere and the STEM behind it is what allows us to hear and respond. Simply stated, “Music Is STEM” and “STEM Is Music.” Together, they are STEAM.
Without the Arts, STEM would just B♭.
See firsthand how science and sound connect together in Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley performance workshop.
Music In Our Schools Month (and MIOSMTM) is a program of National Association for Music Education (NAfME). For more information, visit https://nafme.org/programs/miosm/.