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Connections

Science and Music

How music and science connect

Sound

Ahhh or Ouch?

Girl holding ears 

Sound also varies by how loud or soft it is. Scientists measure that intensity in decibels, or dB. From studying the human ear, they can tell us how loud is too loud. When you speak in a normal voice to a friend, it is about 60 dBs. Sitting in the front row of a rock concert, you’re likely hearing 110 dBs, something that could hurt your hearing if you did it often. And hold it right there, because sound at 160 dBs (too loud!) could cause permanent damage to your ear.

Musicians must be extra careful, particularly if they are exposed to loud music on a regular basis. To protect their hearing, some even wear earplugs while they are performing.

What do science and music have in common? More than you might think.

In music, you can find real-life examples of concepts you might have learned in science class. And musicians can perform better thanks to the discoveries and understandings of science.

So let’s take a scientific—and fun—look at music.

Sound and Sound Waves

What is sound, anyway? Thanks to science, we know sound happens when an object vibrates (moves back and forth quickly). For example, when your finger plucks a string, the string vibrates and disturbs the air around it, making an invisible sound wave. You hear the sound when the wave travels through the air to your ear.

Different sounds have different wavelengths. A wavelength is the distance between the high point of one wave to the high point of the next wave. The number of high points per second is called the frequency. If many sound waves pass in one second, the frequency is high. If only a few sound waves pass in the same second, the frequency is low.

In music, we hear what happens at different frequencies. The pitch of a note—how high or low it sounds—depends on the frequency of the sound waves. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch; the lower the frequency, the lower the pitch.

Try It!

Which of the following sound wave frequencies during the same moment in time has the higher pitch? The answer is below.

Wavelengths 

Answer: The white one.

Instruments

Orchestra Safari

Instrument Spotter's Guide

Brush up on indentifying different instruments of the orchestra with our Instrument Spotter's Guide.

Materials and Construction

What musical instruments are made of and how they are put together affects the sounds they make.

Violin

String instruments like the violin and the cello are usually constructed of wood, with strings made of synthetic (man-made) materials and metal. The strings vibrate when they are plucked or when the musician draws a bow across a string. The bows are usually made of wood and horsehair. Old bows were often decorated with ivory.

Listen to the violin:

A vibrating string does not produce much sound. The instrument’s hollow body creates a resonating chamber that amplifies (enlarges) the sound waves of the vibrating strings.

Try It!
Bottle Resonator

Test your own resonating chamber. Take a rubber band and a small plastic water bottle with a cap. First, fill the bottle with water and close the cap. Stretch the band around the bottle and pluck the band with your finger. Then, remove the cap, empty the water, and reattach the cap. Pluck the band again. Is the sound different? If so, how? What does your experiment tell you about resonating chambers? The answer is below.



Trumpet Brass instruments like the trumpet and trombone are normally made from—you guessed it—brass, a yellowish metal. Sound is made much differently on these instruments. First of all, players must blow air through the instrument. Second, players must do this a specific way—by “buzzing” their lips against the instrument’s mouthpiece.

Listen to the trumpet:

Greener Instruments

Efforts to protect endangered, or threatened species, affect musicians. Take for example, the materials used to make bows.

First, the tips of some older bows feature ivory, a material banned to protect endangered African elephants. Surprisingly, one common and legal substitute for ivory is tusks from an extinct, elephant-like animal called a mastodon. These fossils can be found in Russia and Alaska.

Second, the preferred wood for bows, pernambuco (per-nuhm-BOO-koh) is scarcer because of deforestation (the widespread clearing of trees). Some bow makers have substituted carbon fiber, a synthetic material (thank you, chemistry!) twice as strong as steel. And some instrument makers discovered carbon fiber makes great instruments, too.

Answer: Resonating (hollow) chambers create a deeper and stronger sound.

Physical Fitness

It’s not just the instruments that make music, but also the people who play them. Musicians need to understand how their bodies work to perform better.

Speed Racer

Musicians must teach their muscles to hold and play their instruments. And just like a runner training for a race, musicians must practice hard to train their arms, hands, and fingers—and even their lips and tongues—to play better and faster. Imagine playing an instrument at 150 beats per minute. According to Guinness World Records, the world’s fastest fiddle player is David Garrett, who performed “Flight of the Bumblebee,” composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (NICK-o-leye RIM-skee-KOR-suh-koff), at that astonishing speed in 2008.

Take a Deep Breath

Remember the last time you blew up balloons? Did you start to get dizzy after a few balloons? That might happen the first time you play a wind instrument, too. And that’s why musicians train their lungs and stomach muscles—so they can breathe longer and stronger and play their instruments for hours.

These are just a few of the connections between science and music. Keep discovering more as you learn more about these subjects.

Credits

Writers

Marcia Friedman

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Producer

Sources

Adapted from the Cuesheets created for the Connections concerts developed by National Symphony Orchestra cellist Yvonne Caruthers and performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Illustrations by Carla Badaracco

Music

Overture from Romeo and Juliet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1869), performed by Michelle Godbee (violin), National Symphony Orchestra’s 2007 Summer Music Institute

'Promenade' from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (1874), performed by Sara Huebner (trumpet), National Symphony Orchestra’s 2007 Summer Music Institute

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