Crash Course: Music Physics


While looking for ways to get more students to study physics, Professor Joseph Pechkis found that he could relate his teaching to a subject that almost everyone loves: music. Because whether you draw a bow along a violin string, strike a drum or strum a guitar, the two disciplines are inextricably linked, as vibrations and sound work in perfect harmony.

“The physics of music is the physics of waves,” he said. “And what I really want to teach the students is that, yes, modern physics is wave physics but also quantum physics and quantum mechanics.”

Big expectations? May be. But Pechkis’ approach seems to be working – his “Musical Physics” class is growing in popularity – not just for the recording arts, music and physics, but also for many students of the music sciences and disorders. communication. Throughout the semester, students gain a deeper understanding of both subjects as it teaches students how each sound produces unique waves depending on the instrument, pitch, and tone.

“The idea is to develop some understanding of physics by looking at something that they know and enjoy,” he said. “Everyone loves music, but not everyone likes physics so much. So I present these concepts to my students and hope they get a better appreciation of physics. “

Physics colleague and resident bassoon David Brookes is one of the many musicians who play their instruments live in Pechkis’ “Physics of Music” class.

Pechkis, who received the Outstanding Lecturer Award as part of the University’s Outstanding Faculty 2020-2021 Awards, begins the course every semester without assuming that his students have knowledge of either discipline, but only that they come with an open mind.

Bjorn Larsen (Physics, 21) said taking the course in his final semester this spring was an easy choice as he was eager to understand the connections between the two subjects he loved on a deeper level. He recommends any student interested in either subject to consider taking the Pechkis course, adding that the physics material is taught in a palatable and non-intimidating way regardless of background. of the student.

“I think a lot of times students get away from physics because they take a physics class and get sucked in all the math you have to do,” he said. “’Physics of Music’ contains only a very small amount of math, just enough to understand the very basics of sound and vibration. From there, instead of using math, one uses one’s understanding of music as a tool to understand topics in all of physics, such as spectroscopy, earthquakes, MRI, and waves. gravitational – if you take this course and come with an open mind, you will definitely be rewarded.

Of course, a music related course wouldn’t be complete without the sounds themselves. In almost every class, Pechkis presents music, whether recorded or live – he plays guitar and keyboard in class, although he said he wouldn’t consider himself a “musician”. – to demonstrate aspects such as musical intervals, scales, chords, and basic chord progressions, which are the basis of American music. In doing so, it also shows how a composer uses different intervals and chords to create consonance (pleasant sounds) and dissonance (tension or sounds that are not pleasant).

“I try to be really conceptual with this, but I start off by asking, ‘Why do some notes sound good? ” “, did he declare. “Some notes and scales are universal in different cultures and we are exploring them. “

By adding music from Java, India, and the Middle East, all of which have very different bases and may seem unfamiliar, students begin to see and hear differences in sound, tones, and scales. For example, the traditional Western scale has 12 notes – we mainly use seven of them – while the Indian musical scale has 24 notes.

While Pechkis plays music recordings for the class, live musicians often elicit the strongest response, offering performances and demonstrations by Bach, Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Ravel. Live musicians include David Brookes, fellow physics and resident bassoonist, Rebekah Hood, cellist and fine arts professor at Yuba College, and Sam DeCaprio, CV Starr doctoral student and Julliard School cellist.

While the students are captivated by the performers, Pechkis often feels like he has achieved his goal: to make physics fun and interesting for each of his students.

“I hope the students can see the relevance of moving from music to physics and science, and how they influence each other,” Pechkis said. “The students have a general idea of ​​how they apparently study music, but I was teaching them physics from the start. “

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