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The Science of Music: IL016/IL116


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 :-). 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.

Structure and assessment

Teaching for the module will be based around 9 2-hour workshops and a field trip (on a Saturday mid-February) to Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Throughout the term, students will also work on a group project in 4 project groups, with up to 5-6 people in a group. We will encourage a mix of disciplines within a group. Students will be able to define their own projects with staff support and guidance. These could be practical, performance-related or theoretical and will culminate in a project presentation in session 10 (week 24 of the term).

Assessment is made up of two parts:

1. Continuous assessment includes 10 sections, 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.

2. Project mark consists of (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. There is also a mark component for (iii) achievement, work done and good practice assigned by your mentor. The presentation part of 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). Frequency 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 of 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.


Students need 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 5-6 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. You can suggest your own topics (we will need to be able to mentor any such project and you will need to convince a team to join you).

Some new directions that you could explore are:

Experiencing music for deaf people - working jointly with The Music Works, you would explore different ways in which music can be experienced and build a simple device that would translate music into e.g. tactile experience.

Science of Music and public engagement - the topic of our module are always excellent starting points for various outreach and public engagement projects. You would develop a new demonstration related to the module and prepare a short presentation aimed at general public. The idea is that it will be then used for events on campus (and if you are available - you could be presenting it)!

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

Four new project ideas - the PDF below has more details

  • Everybody louder than everybody else
  • Quartet for the End of Term
  • Shift-work
  • Alvin has left the room

Project ideaLink opens in a new window

A selection of past projects:

  • 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 the composer Scriabin.

We are open to your ideas!!

Module code:

IL016 - Level 5 (Intermediate)

IL116 - Level 6 (Third year/Finalist)

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.

Class time 2024-25 (TBC)

Term 1 (Autumn)
Fridays 10.00-12.00


Avon Drama Studio (Westwood)


For 15 CATS

There are changes compared to previous years
The following are TBC:

Project (70%),

Ongoing assessment (30%)

Curious to see what assessment on this module looks like?

See our Assessment ExhibitionLink opens in a new window