May 19, 2011

The Physics of Music

Legends like Bach and Beethoven are usually top of mind when thinking about composers. Similarly, drums or piano are generally the instinctual thought when discussing musical instruments. But assistant professor of physics James O’Brien is teaching his students to think otherwise.

For his “Physics of Music” class, O’Brien has students design a mechanical or digital instrument that must play at least three notes, or encompass three musical features like octaves, rhythm or harmonies. While some created mock-xylophones from wooden planks, or constructed a guitar from a cigar box, Conor Lydon, BCOS ’14, turned to an unlikely source for his project—earthquakes.

Lydon drew his inspiration from his interest in technology and from the catastrophes in Japan this past winter. He designed Earthquake Musicals, an original computer program that takes live data of earthquakes around the world, and translates it into musical notes.

Lydon said he was sure he wanted to develop some kind of computer program that could generate music, but was unsure of which type of data would be most significant.

“I tried fingerprints, maps, and a few other types of data but it wasn’t until the tragic events of the Tohoku earthquake in Japan, that I fully developed my idea,” said Lydon.

His program, which produces sounds comparable to a melody of digital beeping, consists of three factors: timing, duration of individual notes, and the process of finding the note’s musical value or frequency. The result is determined by a mathematical formula and codes that can replicate traditional musical characteristics.

Before students could begin crafting their design, said O’Brien, they had to understand the “complexities of the physical world around us through a medium that we can all appreciate—music.” In addition to learning musical instruments and sound waves, the curriculum also incorporated the functions of the human audible system.

“The most rewarding part of this project was seeing how nature, once broken down into particular measurements, could be translated into harmonious sound,” said Lydon. “I was really intrigued by the idea that music, something we’re all exposed to, could be thoroughly explained through mathematical equations and the laws of physics.”

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