The Science of Music

My transition from the end of the school year into summer has been focused on the common theme of sound science. One of my favorite topics! During the last two weeks of school, I offered to cover the unit from the third grade science curriculum on sound. Exactly one week after my students’ last day of school, I was teaching a 21+ crowd at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Social Science event on the theme “Science of Music.”

In college, I would make annual visits to my mother’s second grade classes with a supply of instruments and teach a lesson as part of a sound science unit. Kids seem naturally attracted to instruments, so this was always a big hit. When I learned that the third grade teachers at my school might not have time to get to the sound science unit at all (thanks to standardized testing), I was happy to offer to teach it in music class. There is very little that can keep a bunch of eight and nine year olds focused on learning in music class after they’ve had their final concert and when they know they have less than two weeks left of the school year, but learning about instruments magically does just that!

For those of you whose teachers weren’t able to fit the sound science unit into your third grade school year, here’s a summary of what my students learned.

1. All sound is created by vibration.

2. Vibrations create sound waves.

3. Sound waves have two measurements: amplitude and wavelength/frequency.

4. Amplitude affects the volume of a sound (the higher the amplitude, the louder the sound); frequency affects the pitch of a sound (the higher the frequency, the higher pitched the sound).

5. Percussion instruments produce vibrations when they are hit.

6. Stringed instruments produce vibrations when a string is bowed, plucked, or hit.

7. The following three factors affect the pitch of a string: tightness, thickness, and length.

8. The vibrations that create the sound on brass instruments are produced by the players lips. (insert farting lip sounds)

9. To make sound on woodwind instruments, either a reed vibrates (as on a clarinet or bassoon), or the air column vibrates when it is split (as on a recorder or flute).

10. The bigger an instrument, the lower the pitch.

Diagram of a sound wave

I am very lucky to have access to a variety of instruments, and I was able to demonstrate in class with various classroom percussion instruments, cello, opened up piano, trombone, bassoon, flute, and soprano, alto, and sopranino recorders. Now that I see this list of what they learned written out, I’m even more impressed by how much they learned in those last few music classes!

The week after I finished this unit, I was doing a very different kind of teaching on a very similar topic. Charlie McCarron, host of the podcast Composer Quest and my boyfriend, was invited to be a presenter at a special event at the Science Museum of Minnesota and I was enlisted as his assistant. The Science Museum hosts special “Social Science” evening events periodically. They are focused on a particular topic that connects science to some pop culture topic, such as games or music, and invite local experts to present in locations around the museum. These are meant to be social as well as educational; visitors must be 21 or older and alcohol is sold throughout the building.

Composer Quest at the Science Museum

Charlie presenting at the Composer Quest booth at the Science Museum of Minnesota

The Composer Quest booth was assigned the best position within the museum, in the middle of the dinosaur area! Charlie’s presentation was an expansion on an interview he did with Dr. Diana Deutsch, the founder of the field of music psychology, on musical illusions. While Charlie gave twenty minute presentations to large crowds every half hour, my job was to explain the musical illusions that visitors could listen to on laptops that were set up at the Composer Quest table. The most popular one was the “tritone paradox.” The theory is that the intonation patterns of the dialect that a person grew up hearing influence if they hear this sound as going higher or lower in pitch. We conducted an informal survey of the people who listened at the Science Museum, but you can participate in Charlie’s more formal survey here. Some of the other auditory illusions that Charlie presented were the Shepard Tone (Mario’s endless staircase), the octave illusion, and binaural recording. They’re worth checking out.

Now if I could only find an event like the one at the Science Museum that I could take my students to!

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