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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: I have had a couple of queries from Arts/Humanities students concerned about how "heavy" the mathematical or scientific content might be. This is a module for all students and I hope to see a good breadth across faculties in out first cohort. 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. There will be some calculations and some simple equations but we are most interested in developing strong qualitative understanding of the key concepts. Feel free to get in touch with me if you want to know more. --Gavin


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). Students will be able to define their own projects with staff support and guidance: these could be practial, performance-related or theoretical. Where project work is done in groups 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).
  • Perception of sound and music: the ear, the psychophysics of sound, body resonances (e.g. bass perception), compression (e.g. how does MP3 work?).
  • The science of acoustic instruments: air columns (e.g. flute vs. clarinet), string vibrations, resonance and sympathy, tuning, timbre and pitch.
  • Electronic music: electronic instruments and digital sound processing; stability, digital vs. analogue concepts, filtering, distortion and feedback, history of electronic music. The human voice: resonance, song vs. speech, physiology, pitch, vocal manipulation.
  • Scales and tuning: mathematical relations, equal temperament, consonance & dissonance, history of scales and pitch standards, non-Western scales, Bohlen-Pierce scale.
  • 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 email or upload to the course forum a short piece of music or sound (strictly under 30 seconds) as mp3 or wav. Alternatively you may play or sing something! Your email/upload should include 1 or 2 sentences why you chose this sound with some reference to the syllabus. We will introduce ourselves with these clips and explanations as an ice-breaker. Assessment: simple mark out of 10 for providing piece and discussion.

Module Convenor


Dr OksanaTrushkevych

O dot Trushkevych at warwick dot ac dot uk


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





For 7.5 CATS

1 hour examination (70%)
Weekly multiple choice questionnaire (30%)

For 12 or 15 CATS

1 hour examination (40% or 30%)
Project (40% or 50%)
Weekly multiple choice questionnaire (20%)