The physics of music and sound

Physics professor Dr. David Hornidge teaches interdisciplinary physics and music course

Mount Allison physics professor Dr. David Hornidge.

By Melissa Lombard

Physics professor Dr. David Hornidge is a specialist in experimental subatomic physics. He also has a love for music and plays the guitar. Five years ago he decided to combine these two passions to create a new course — the Physics of Music and Sound.

“It really seemed like a natural fit and it is one of my favourite classes to teach,” he says.

The first-year course, which is taught every second winter semester, usually has a 50-50 mix of Science and Arts students.

The students learn the basics of sound production, transmission, how sound is heard, how musical instruments work, and the physics of waves. They work with software that helps to analyze sound and shows amplitude versus frequency.

Hornidge says the content is meant to cover the basics of sound without in-depth science, to make it accessible and interesting to students from all disciplines. There is a lecture and demonstration portion to the curriculum, as well as an experiential component where students complete activities each week, plus a creative final project.

“That has been one of the best parts of the course,” Hornidge says. “The students create these projects that are just incredible.”

He remembers one student creating a tubulum, a PVC instrument made popular by the Blue Man Group, as well as a theremin or tannerin, which makes the unique sound in the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations.”

Music students have visited the classroom to perform live so the students have material to analyze. The interdisciplinary collaboration has also seen Hornidge visit Music professor Dr. Vicki St. Pierre’s voice pedagogy class to speak about how voice works from a physics perspective and she will be speaking in his class this semester.

He says these types of interdisciplinary courses are important because everyone gets to broaden their horizons.

“Every year there is a neat group of people with different backgrounds, which helps us all to see different perspectives. Someone always asks a question that I have never thought of or comes up with a completely unique project,” he says. “It really is neat.”

Joshua Cookson, a third-year computer science and psychology student and current teaching assistant for the Physics of Music and Sound course, also values this interdisciplinary approach.

“Classes like these are super valuable as they allow students to see the links between their studies and other disciplines,” he says. “Sometimes we get too focused on one area and forget that knowledge is a collective body with many different limbs.”

He says the class featured direct connections between what we hear (sound), how we hear it (psychology), and what it actually is (physics).

“This a relevant topic to everyday life and I frequently find myself reminded of the connections in this body of knowledge,” he says.