Physics of Music
2004 July Experience

Music is an incredibly rich art form.  But is music just vibrations in the air?  We will use a scientific framework to analyze the production, propagation and perception of sound.  The terms that musicians use to describe sound are pitch, loudness and timbre.  What do these terms mean from a scientific point of view?  What and how does the ear hear?  How can you put over 10 times as much music on a CD in MP3 format compared to regular audio CD?  Whatís being thrown away?  We will seek answers to these questions and more.

Previous musical training is not required and non-musicians are encouraged to enroll.  If you play a reasonably portable musical instrument, please bring it.  The course is designed for students who have had algebra.  We will use calculators.  We will also use computer software that allows the recording, playback, editing and analysis of sound recorded through a computerís soundcard.

You are required to abide by the Davidson College Honor Code as it applies to July Experience.  How the Honor Code applies to homework exercises and reviews will be discussed in class.  You are required to attend all classes.  If you must miss a class you will still be held responsible for the material and assignments.

Course Outline

Read Chapters 1-3, Appendices 1-3

1.      What is sound?  What is music?
Historical background, Scientific understanding, Pythagoras

2.      Frequency, wavelength, waveshape, harmonic series

3.      Intervals and scales: Pythagorean, Ptolemaic (just), Gregorian modes, equal-tempered

Read Interludes 1-2

4.      Strings and pipes, standing waves

Review #1 (1-4)

Read Chapter 4

5.      Superposition

6.      Analysis and synthesis

Read Chapter 7, Appendix 4

7.      The Ear

8.      Intensity, decibels

9.      Masking, JND

Review #2 (5-9)

10.  Digital music

11.  Lossy and lossless compression

12.  MP3 file format

Final Exam


Day 1,6,11

Day 2,7,12

Day 3,8,13

Day 4,9,14

Day 5,10,15

Week 1






Week 2

5&6, Review (1-4)





Week 3

Review (5-9)