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The Science of Music (IL016)


This interdisciplinary module introduces students (in all subject areas and with any level of musical, mathematical or scientific expertise) to the relationships between science, music and mathematics.

The module will explore multiple facets of Music by combining tools from a variety of disciplines, from Physics and Maths to Psychology and History, with contributions from a range of professional musicians including an exciting collaboration with Birmingham Conservatoire.

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 :-). You can always get help from fellow students and there is help with Maths available (not just for those on this module). 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 (circumstances permitting). There are 2 options for the module: a 7.5 CAT version and a 15 CAT version. The continuous assessment includes 10 parts, one for each session. Session one requires bringing an introductory music clip and providing a commentary. Sessions 2-9 will have an online quiz to consolidate learning. Session 10, the project presentations, requires every student to take part in assessing their peers.

For the essay, students will critically discuss two key topics that they have found useful and exciting in the module.

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 and detailed account of the work done by the student and the group, and conclusions are drawn (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 practical, 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). Frquency analysis - spectrograms and their applications - search by sound apps
  • Tuning and Temperament: mathematical relations, equal temperament, consonance & dissonance, history of scales and pitch standards, non-Western scales.
  • The science of acoustic instruments: Here we cover a large range of acoustic instruments - string, brass, woodwind, percussion (including piano, which is classed a percussion instrument!). There are demonstrations both pf physics and from musicians discussing how harmonics can be used to achieve "cleaner" sound. .
  • 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.
  • Acoustics in the environment: room acoustics, reverberation, architectural acoustics, the challenge of artificial reverb, impulse response. When available, this session will be done as a field trip to Birmingham Conservatoire.
  • History of Music and World music: evolution of music (western and non-western) through the ages. Relation to other historic events, philosophical ideas and scientific discoveries. Western music history timeline. 20th century music. Folk and tribal music, musical influences, music in the 21st century (gender, race, culture).

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. Alternatively you may play or sing something! Your 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, part of the ongoing assessment.


For those on the 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, so you can start promptly. Multidisciplinary teams are strongly encouraged! We request that you have a separate meeting with your project supervisor before then. This meeting will be credited at 10 points and will be a part of your ongoing assessment. 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 were on offer previous years (and can be expanded and taken further this year). 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) - popular every year, two age group options on offer (for two teams)

Music visualisation - translating notes and chords into visual images

Music of the 21st century: Virtual Reality (creative or software based project);

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!

Synaesthesia - an earlier project has built a Synaesthesia light machine that works from a midi keyboard and translates notes played into colours based on a well documented case of synaesthesia by a composer Scriabin.

Some new directions that you could explore are:

Moog Theremini robot - we have developed a simple robot to play Theremin (an electronic instrument) - this was used for the performance with the coull Quartet and a base guitar (Gavin Bell) at the British Science Festival. A very useful extension of this would be to build in audio feedback and PID control (using fuzzy logic!) – trying to mimic the way musicians stay in tune.

Creative or software project based on the work of previous cohorts or on your own ideas - one suggestion is a composition and production of a piece suitable for playing at outreach events aimed at children. Can involve instruments/equipment available here (or build your own instruments!)

Music and wellbeing - there are obvious links between music and emotions. Here we will aim to gain a deeper insight into the relationship between mental health, wellbeing and music and some clinical-style work.


We are open to your ideas!!

Module Convenor


Dr OksanaTrushkevych

O dot Trushkevych at warwick dot ac dot uk

If you need any forms signed off, IATL office can do it for you.

Proposed Class time

Term 2 (Spring) 2021/22
Fridays 10.00-12.00


Avon Drama Studio


For 7.5 CATS

1000 word essay (70%)
Ongoing assessment (30%)

For 15 CATS

1000 word essay (30%)
Project (50%)
Ongoing assessment (20%)