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The Science of Music (IL016)

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Course Moodle page (17-18)


This interdisciplinary module aims to introduce students (in all subject areas and with any level of musical, scientific or mathematical expertise) to the relationships between science, music and mathematics. Students will develop an appreciation and understanding of the complex interplay of mathematics and physics with technological, cultural and historical factors inherent in the making and appreciation of music. The course will also touch on aspects of physiology and psychology in the perception of music and the inspiration of mathematical and scientific ideas in musical composition and will include input from external speakers and the Coull Quartet.

By the end of the module, students will have developed knowledge of some of the key abstract mathematical and physical concepts underlying sound, its generation and perception, and musical structure. They will be able to situate these insights in an artistic, historical and cultural framework. Students will be able to manage their own learning in the contexts of (1) interdisciplinary project work, (2) peer assessment and (3) devising topics for the curriculum itself. They will be able to communicate their own scholarly and creative work in an interdisciplinary environment.

Important note: If you are wondering about how "heavy" the mathematical or scientific content might be, we have produced a list of examples to help you decide whether it is for you. (If you managed to do any maths at school, you'll be fine :-) This is a module for all students and we hope to see a good breadth across faculties. We will be using a textbook called "Measured Tones" by Ian Johnston (ML 3805.J6) - the treatment of scientific and mathematical concepts in this book gives you a good idea of how we will approach things in the course.


Teaching for the module will be based around 10 2-hour workshops. There are 3 options for the module: a 7.5 CAT version as well as 12 CAT and 15 CAT versions. All will involve bi-weekly continuous assessment, comprising 3 online multiple-choice tests, introductory clips in week 1 and peer assessment in week 10. Both of the higher CAT versions will require both a project and a 1 hour summer written examination. The 7.5 CAT version requires only the examination.

The project consists of both (i) a peer-reviewed group presentation or group performance, and (ii) a reflective project report including critique of background literature (2000 words; 3000 for 15 CAT option). There is also a separate mark for work done from your supervisor. Students will be able to define their own projects with staff support and guidance: these could be practial, performance-related or theoretical. Project work is done in groups, and we will encourage a mix of disciplines within a group. The project work will be peer-assessed, so the project presentation must be understandable by an interdisciplinary group of fellow students.

Indicative Syllabus

The following list of topics gives an idea of the scope of the module. Eight sessions will be taught (including the opening session - see below). We intend to leave one full 2-hour session free to cover topics chosen by the students and/or for revision. The final session will comprise student presentations and peer assessment.

  • Fundamentals of sound: pressure waves in air, the dB scale, frequency as pitch, standing waves, nodes and anti-nodes, harmonics and timbre, envelope (attack/decay/sustain/release).
  • Scales and tuning: mathematical relations, equal temperament, consonance & dissonance, history of scales and pitch standards, non-Western scales.
  • The science of acoustic instruments: air columns (e.g. flute vs. clarinet), string vibrations, percussion instruments, resonance and sympathy, tuning, timbre and pitch.
  • The human voice: history, types of singing, vocal manipulation, physiology, song vs. speech, formants, projection.
  • Perception of sound and music: the ear, pitch recognition and discrimination, the perfect pitch, the psychophysics of sound, sound illusions, body resonances (e.g. bass perception).
  • Electronic music: electronic instruments and digital sound processing; stability, digital vs. analogue concepts, filtering, distortion and feedback, history of electronic music.
  • Music in the environment: orchestral layout, speakers and PA systems, room acoustics, reverberation, the challenge of artificial reverb, impulse response.

Note on the first session

For students signing up:

There will be an assessment in the first session! But don’t worry – nothing heavy, just part of a getting-to-know-each other activity. You will be asked to upload to the course forum a short piece of music or sound (strictly under 30 seconds) as mp3 or wav. Your upload should include 1 or 2 sentences why you chose this sound with some reference to the syllabus. We will listen to some of these clips as an ice-breaker. Assessment: simple mark out of 10 for providing piece and discussion, part of the ongoing assessment.


For those on 12 and 15 CAT option - you have to choose a project and be formally assigned to a project team and supervisor by the end of week 2 (and ideally week 1), so you can start promptly. Multidisciplinary teams are strongly encouraged! There will be some time (around an hour) during the first leture when you can talk to potential supervisors and find out more about the projects to help you decide. We can run about 4 projects this year, up to 5 people in each project group.

Start thinking about what you want to do now - we encourage creativity and your own interests to be pursued in your projects! Here are some projects that will be on offer next year (and you can suggest your own topics):

Science, Music and Schools - design an engaging lesson related to the course content and deliver it in one of the local schools (choice of age groups)

Music of the 21st century: Virtual Reality (creative or software based project); Alternatively - creative or software project based on the work of previous cohorts (synaesthesia, sonification).

The secret of Stradivari - recent research actively debates whether there is a secret and whether we can tell old vs new violins apart; project around analysing a range of interdisciplinary research papers, with potential for some experimental work!

We are open to your ideas!!

Module Convenor


Dr OksanaTrushkevych

O dot Trushkevych at warwick dot ac dot uk

Please note I am currently on maternity leave. If you need any forms signed off, please ask IATL office, they can do it for you.


Term 2 (Spring) 2018-19
Fridays 10.00-12.00 (TBC)



Humanities studio (TBC)


For 7.5 CATS

1 hour examination (70%)
Ongoing assessment (30%)

For 12 or 15 CATS

1 hour examination (40% or 30%)
Project (40% or 50%)
Ongoing assessment (20%)