Exploratorium's 'Science of Music'

By , csmonitor.com

One of the phenomena that the last example illustrates is that tile bathrooms are great places for reverb, and as one of the collection of Questions points out, bathroom decor can also increase a sound's volume and bass - which is why your singing sounds better in the shower. Other questions explore why some music can elicit emotional -and even physical- reactions, how opera singers can hold those impossibly long notes, and even how chewing on a cinnamon stick is a cure for earworms.

A co-worker at my day job recently struggled with a tune "stuck" in her head. (More tragic is the fact that the tune in question is "99 Luftballoons" - a song she neither likes nor knows.) Why some pieces of music are more effective than others at resonating in memory, and why no single melody is capable of doing it to everybody, is a question of science as much as art - as are questions of why certain music gives us goose bumps, or how much what we see affects what we think we hear.

Of course, the leader in the science of things we "don't-tend-to-look-at-scientifically" is San Francisco's Exploratorium, and following on previous investigations into the science of Baseball, Cycling, and Hockey, the museum's website has now added the Science of Music to its online collection. So take heart - soon you'll know exactly why your neighbor's stereo always seems to have the bass turned up to eleven.

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A rare non-sporting installment in the "Science of" series, Music opens with a rotating collection of questions: "Why does my singing sound so great in the shower?" and "Why do some songs get stuck in my head?" (It turns out that my co-worker's condition even has a name, "earworms.") The right and bottom sections of the page hold invitations and links to the site's three sections - Online Exhibits, more quasi-universal Questions, and a collection of short Movies.

The Exhibits use sound samples and percussion to demonstrate most of the principles under investigation. (No three-part harmonies or contrapuntal melodic construction from scratch here.) Exhibit examples include: The "Dot Mixer" - which allows at-home producers to drag sound sources (dots) around the screen, choosing audio elements and adjusting such variables as volume, and left-right stereo orientation. Meanwhile, a set of buttons at the bottom of the screen can change the overall sound of each new arrangement from Bluegrass, to Tubular Bells, to something that sounds like the soundtrack from a b movie South Pacific island.

"Kitchen Sink-O-Pation" explores the context of sounds. Starting off as another exercise in choosing objects (in this case, familiar instead of abstract) to create a sound mix, Sink-o-Pation then moves into the surreal by allowing those objects to change. (Coffee grounds become maracas, or a rattlesnake, and refrigerators transform into robots.)

"Step Re-Mix" provides a basic introduction to the concept of polyrhythmic music. (As opposed to most Western music which uses only one rhythm, e.g. a 3/4 waltz or 4/4 march beat- in a given composition.)

Three additional exhibits include more percussion, QuickTime movies of the "Headlands Experiments" in what could be described as environmental music, and interactive histories of a handful of specific instruments.

Movies offers a quartet of QuickTime clips - including a profile of Peter Whitehead (who makes instruments out of as baking tins, lawn mowers, and hair pins), an explanation of the tuning process that precedes any orchestral performance (and the extra pressures that process puts on the oboists), and a graphic demonstration of the differences between "live" and "dead" musical spaces.

The design of the site is basic but attractive. Large graphics and frequent interaction maintain interest levels for visitors of all ages, while movement between the site's main sections is easily accomplished through a navigation tab at the top of the browser window. Additional helpful touches include a system of marking which of the 20 Headlands Experiments clips have been viewed (to prevent wasting time in reloading repeats) - though, to my surprise given the subject matter and exhibition host, there wasn't any evidence of additional recommended links for further exploration.

Still, on its own, the Science of Music provides a nice mix of answers to the questions you may have always wondered about, as well as those you never thought to ask. It may not improve your singing, but it will make your conversational skills about music sound better.

The Exploratorium's Science of Music can be found at http://www.exploratorium.edu/music/.

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