Undergraduate discovers the physics behind the music

(Contributed by Siv Schwink, University of Illinois)

For Meredith Powell, science and music form a natural union. The fourth-year physics major has been playing piano and viola for as long as she can remember and plans to graduate with a minor in music. And her talents have not gone unrecognized — she has performed as principal violist in the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, and plays regularly around the Sacramento area with her quartet.

Meredith Powell

UC Davis undergraduate student Meredith Powell  in the lab of Steve Errede, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Photo by Steven Errede.

This summer, Powell took her lifelong appreciation of music to a deeper level. As an undergraduate researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Powell investigated the physics at work behind the performance of instrumental music.

Through the National Science Foundation’s 10-week Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, Powell had the opportunity to work side by side with Illinois physicist Steven Errede, who has been researching and teaching the acoustical physics of music for more than a decade.

“This was really a unique opportunity,” said Powell. “The Illinois physics of music lab is the only place that uses techniques to measure the complex, or phase-sensitive, aspects of the sound field, through which a deeper understanding of the acoustical physics of musical instruments is achieved.”

In Errede’s lab, Powell used an experimental apparatus to measure vibration at various frequencies, and to determine the pitches at which her viola resonated. She also measured physical quantities such as sound intensity, acoustic impedance, and energy density across the back of the instrument.

“It turns out that there are significant acoustical differences between the viola and its close relative, the violin,” said Powell. The resonant frequencies of the viola do not lie on the pitches of the open strings, as with a violin. This could contribute to the viola’s more subdued, mellower timbre.”

Powell said the methods she learned in experimenting with the physics of music taught her about how physics research is approached in general. At the same time, it gave her one more reason to love her instruments.

“Music has given me the opportunity to tour and perform overseas and expand my insights into other cultures. It has not only instilled in me qualities such as teamwork, leadership, hard work, and dedication, but also fostered my creative development which has allowed me to look at physics from another perspective,” she said.

Powell’s summer research was funded by National Science Foundation. The REU program supports active research participation by undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The UC Davis Department of Physics also hosts an annual program for REU summer students from other universities.

More: Steve Errede’s course on Acoustical Physics of Music

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