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Undergrad Course Teaches the ‘Sounds of Music’

Students Explore the Boundary of Art and Science

Fox and Gelsomini
Physics instructor Herbert Fox and student Frank Gelsomini work in the physics lab.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

“To understand how musical instruments make sound is science,” says Herbert Fox, an adjunct professor in the Physics Department. “To manipulate and combine sounds to make music is art. To be moved by music is part of what it means to be human. To partake in all of these contributes to being an educated and cultured person.”

Since 2009, Fox has been teaching a general education course he developed called “Sounds of Music: The Physical Basis of Musical Sound.” He says the course is designed for anyone who wants to understand the physical processes behind how musical instruments produce sound, how sound is transformed in performance spaces and how sound is heard.

“It requires no college-level science, math or music background,” he says.

In addition to attending classroom lectures and participating in lab exercises, his students make field trips to the workshop of Larry Buck in downtown Lowell to learn about pianos in general and piano soundboards in particular.

“These sessions are a regular component of my Sounds of Music class,” says Fox. “Mr. Buck is a second-generation piano technician with an international reputation for his outstanding work with soundboards.”

Fox tells his class that there is no assumption that science can explain music and its ability to reach our very souls.
“For it is in exploring the science of sounds we also explore the boundary between art and science,” he says.

Piano Strings Capstone Project

One of Fox’s students, Frank Gelsomini, is currently working with Fox and Buck on his senior capstone project to study the interaction of longitudinal and transverse vibrations in piano strings.

“As far as we know, no one has made direct measurements of longitudinal vibrations the way we are attempting to using a high-speed video camera,” says Gelsomini, a physics major.

His setup at Buck’s workshop consists of a single heavy-gauge piano chord strung taut across a flank of steel and terminated at each end like it would be inside an actual piano.

“This is to replicate as much as possible the conditions of the string inside a piano,” he says.

He says he chose to conduct his research at Buck’s workshop because he believes the resulting data is going to be helpful, not so much to musicians but to the people who make or restore musical instruments.

“For example, through this project we hope to learn more about the nature of longitudinal waves in tight, stiff strings and what conditions we can change, if any, to get better sound,” says Gelsomini. “One real-world application of my project would be to help develop a design for pianos such that the longitudinal modes only emphasize the strong harmonic overtones of the transverse vibrations, thereby giving the piano a richer, bigger and more harmonic sound.”