Science and math can be used to create music, and Richard Hills, a former professor at Weber State University, is attempting to do so.
“I’m working on a research project, trying to modify overtone frequencies of the marimba,” Hills said after giving a presentation Wednesday to Weber State University’s physics department.
By utilizing his knowledge of the sound wave functions and the mathematical production of contrasting sounds, Hills uses his experiments to create music he enjoys.
Hills uses the marimba, a keyed percussion instrument similar in shape to a piano, that is struck with mallets to produce sound. His lecture “Music & Physics: Pleasing tones from Strings, Bars and Stones” was named after the construct of the marimba, which can be put together using materials as diverse as “strings, stones, or pipes of varying sizes, [all] plucked or struck in order to make music.”
Dissonance in music, according to Hills, is created by negative overlap of sound waves and is usually considered hard on the ears, but our ears can create music out of irregular sounds.
Hills demonstrated that when two notes, or tones, are struck, two different vibrating frequencies are produced, and the human ear processes both. Individually, each frequency is detected, but the human ear also takes the resultant clashing tones and creates a third sound. Thus, according to Hills, the ear is actually hearing three sound wave functions.
“This principle of subtraction is what allows us to listen to low notes and tones through small ear phones without requiring a larger subwoofer to produce the individual bass function,” Hills said. “It is theorized by physicists that the reason we hear this added function is a distortion due to the bones of the human ear.”
Nathan Waugh, a student currently studying physics and mathematics at WSU, found Hills lecture applicable to his studies.
“Physics can be applied to anything in life,” Waugh said. “It’s useful no matter what you’re doing.”
Waugh said part of the general appeal of physics was the understanding he gained of the events that happen around him every day.
“There’s a satisfying feeling of working through a physical problem to understand the real world,” Waugh said.
Colin Inglefield, professor of physics at WSU, helps put together the weekly lectures, which are put on by graduating seniors and professors on a variety of topics.
“Most people who take physics classes take them because they’re majoring in something else which requires one semester or one year of physics,” Inglefield said. “A big part of our mission is to support all the other majors because of our relevance to their programs. For the students giving the lectures, it’s a really important experience because it’s one of the few times they get to give a long-form talk to their peers.”
According to Inglefield, this merging of subjects allows students to keep a fresh perspective on what physicists do.
“You take a physics class and learn about physics two-hundred years ago, but if you come to the seminars, you’ll learn about physics today,” Inglefield said.
The physics department has a schedule of lectures every Wednesday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. on a variety of topics relating to physical sciences and posts a schedule of topics on the physics’ page of the WSU website.