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Musical Science Course Strikes Chord with Students

(Posted February 11, 2008)

James Latten, assistant professor of music, helped students create their own musical instruments in Juniata's Musical Acoustics course.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- You think your final exams were hard? Try building your own musical instrument and then performing a syncopated song in front of your fellow students.

In fact, that is the final lab project for the 20-plus students who are enrolled in "Musical Acoustics" at Juniata College, a spring-semester course that gives students the chance to look deeper into how people hear music and understand the scientific basis for resounding sounds ranging from the peal of church bells to the ear-peeling guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen.

Designed as a course that would appeal to both science students looking for a fine arts course or humanities students seeking a science class focused on a topics familiar to them, "Musical Acoustics" is different from many similar courses at other colleges and universities in that the students who enroll at Juniata often do not have an extensive music background.

"Many times an acoustics course is taught at universities with large music programs to give those students an opportunity to take a science course," says Jamie White, professor of physics, who has taught that type of acoustics course at Baldwin Wallace College and SUNY-Potsdam (both have large music programs). "At Juniata we don't have students coming in the door with music experience. We get people who played music in high school or in college and want to learn the science behind music."

Like all of Juniata's science classes, "Musical Acoustics" has a laboratory requirement. However, instead of struggling to understand quantum mechanics, the lab experience for much of the course centers on building musical instruments.

"The students really do like to get into building (their instruments). They've spent much of the time in school writing essays and talking about their feelings that they love getting in the lab with saws and pipe cutters."
Jamie White, professor of physics

Students, after a few labs to give them physics fundamentals, initially work in teams to build simple instruments such as a xylophone, pan pipes or a stringed instrument. Then White and his teaching partner James Latten, assistant professor of music, turn each student loose to create their own "axe," as it were.

"As a musician, it was helpful in understanding tuning and scales," says Ariel Otruba, a junior from Mansfield, Pa. studying peace and conflict studies. "In our labs, we tested the speed of sound in different environments, built instruments and broke glass with sound."

Latten, who is a percussionist, says each student gets a basic background in music theory and briefly learns how to describe music, using such terms as crisp, bright, brilliant. "It takes them a while to get beyond saying they like a song because it has a good beat," Latten says.

The professors also spend time discussing the science behind types of instruments, including brass, woodwinds, percussion and stringed instruments, after which the class explores how human beings perceive sound. "I like to say that the course is 75 percent music and 75 percent science because there is such an overlap in what we talk about," White explains.

"The most interesting part of the course for me was learning how the lengths used in different instruments is what gives them their unique sounds and that they can be changed by making the lengths shorter or longer," says Taryn Martin, a junior from Plymouth, Mass. studying psychology.

The course also explores the physics of music through guest speakers such as Huntingdon luthiers (guitar makers) Curtis Rockwell and Johanna Mutti, and Altoona-based piano tuner Bill Hocherl. They also invite Juniata faculty with musical backgrounds to discuss an instruments. Biologist Jill Keeney has explained the French horn and mathematician John Bukowski has demonstrated the cello.

In addition, Latten plays some avant-garde music that illustrates some of the principles of pitch, octave-range and frequency. The playlist includes John Cage, Indonesian gamelon orchestras, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Peter Frampton.

The last third of the course focuses on more detailed acoustics concepts as well as individual projects in which each student is expected to create their own instruments. "The students really do like to get into building something," White points out. "They've spent much of the time in school writing essays and talking about their feelings that they love getting in the lab with saws and pipe cutters."

The student instruments range from the simple ("Glorified wind chimes," says White.) to the ambitious. One student built a theremin, an electronic instrument that is played by manipulating the air above two antennas. (The theremin is best known as the otherworldly instrument used in the Beach Boys song "Good Vibrations.")

Other instruments created in the laboratory include a trombone made from plastic plumbing pipe, a drum-tar (combination drum and guitar) a tam-jo (tambourine and banjo), and a double-neck guitar. "It didn't sound very good, but it looked cool," White says of the guitar.

The final project for the class is a group concert in the lobby of the von Liebig Center for Science. The professors make sure all invented instruments can be tuned in order to have a somewhat pleasant musical experience. Two years ago the group rocked out to the "Theme from Rocky." Latten hasn't decided what this year's selection will be.

"Last time we didn't get much of a crowd, probably because we didn't know how it was going to sound," Latten says. "This year Jamie and I will get more of an audience, or maybe a booking agent."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.