Bronze bells and songwriting software inspire a merger of engineering and music
By Alice Daniel
When “The Victors” peals from the 55-bell carillon high inside the University of Michigan’s Burton Tower, it’s likely many students below can hum the famous fight song as they stroll. One group, though, also understands the engineering and skilled labor behind the resonant tones, having sculpted and poured metal to make carillon bells, used a computer program to pre-tune the bells, and worked with lathing equipment to finesse the shape and achieve a particular sound. All these techniques were incorporated into the freshman course Shaping the Sound of Bronze. Team-taught by professors from engineering, music, art and design, and cross-listed in several departments, it is one of a number of ways teachers have found to present engineering concepts through the arts.
Fashioning metal into music allows students to experience “a real die-hard design problem where effectively they have to work together in teams and get their hands dirty,” says Gregory Wakefield, an associate professor in electrical engineering and computer science and one of the instructors who introduced the course in the fall of 2010. But Shaping the Sound offers more than hands-on harmony.
An expert in signal processing and the physics of sound, Wakefield is always looking for ways to hook engineering students into a deeper understanding of Fourier mathematics. “Being a musician myself, I gravitate toward examples from the audio world,” he says. The course gives engineering students “a gut-level understanding of how this stuff works, so when they have to sit down and work the math problems, they have a better sense of why it matters.”
Wakefield created a modeling program to help students understand how changing the shape of the bell would affect the sound. “Fourier allows us to mathematically represent the sound in a way that we tend to hear it – the punch line being that we could then work with the students to create synthesized versions of their bells,” he says. Students could change the sound of their synthesized bells on the computer, in effect pre-tune them, and then go and physically remove the predicted amount of metal from the bell. “We are able to teach the students how objects make sounds, how resonance works, how if you push a shape in different ways, it’s going to sound differently,” says Wakefield. “It makes a lot of sense to them because they can relate it to what they are hearing. Fourier is a little abstract.”
In the process of putting this unique course together, Wakefield not only introduced his students to Fourier, but he and his university colleagues essentially modeled for their students one vital goal for the class: learning to create and design in multidisciplinary teams that include artists, musicians, and engineers. In fact, the idea for the course came from music professor and university carillonneur Steven Ball, who wanted his own students to gain a much deeper understanding of the carillon. “It really requires all the students to cross-pollinate with the other two disciplines and remain sensitive to what the other two disciplines have to say about it,” he says.
For engineering students, “there are wonderful things that artists and musicians can bring to the table in understanding how to design,” adds Wakefield. In this course, students relied upon the expertise and well-trained ear of Ball to make sure the bells sounded great, and the strategies of art and design professor Lou Marinaro to make sure the bronze was poured correctly. They thus learned an important lesson in addressing customers’ needs. “Ultimately the user will develop an affinity toward your product if it has been designed to meet their aesthetic tastes,” Wakefield says.
Helping engineers grasp intuitively what they will later learn mathematically is also the thinking behind a Rowan University course entitled Signals and Systems in Music. “A musical note is the same thing as an electrical signal when you’re studying engineering,” says Linda Head, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Glassboro, N.J., school. “We wanted to show students there was a continuity between things that look very different. There’s an enormous amount of engineering buried in the kind of work and analysis that musicians do and vice versa. They’ll get the math later, but they have a gut-level appreciation for what these signals sound like and look like and how you can manipulate them.”
Head is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded project, shared by Rowan University and Kansas State University, in which Signals and Systems in Music serves as a model course emphasizing synergies between music and engineering. In the Rowan course, which falls under general education so anyone can take it, students learn some basic music theory and then learn how to use GarageBand to compose a song using loops, MIDI instruments, and recorded tracks for their final project. “At the end of the semester we have a big jam session,” says Head, who oversees the course taught by two adjunct instructors.
Like the carillon bell-making course, Signals and Systems sets the stage for looking at Fourier series. For instance, students use engineering tools like oscilloscopes to analyze sinusoid waves and multimeters to measure the voltage or amplitude of a signal. “They can recognize a particular sound is correlated with a particular wave form on an oscilloscope,” says Head. “A sine wave makes a very smooth sound; a square wave has a lot of high-frequency components.”
Samantha Pfeiffer, an electrical and computer engineering major, says she never expected to take a music class in college because it’s not her forte. But with Signals and Systems, she says, “I got a music credit, and I got exposed to some engineering.”
With students now accustomed to listening to favorite tunes on hand-held devices, that’s a logical starting point for a course that combines music and engineering. In Building a Mobile Phone Ensemble, they design and develop their own new mobile phone “instruments” by writing software. They then compose new electronic musical works that they perform in ensembles at the end of the semester.
The University of Michigan course immerses students in problems that are not numbers-centric, says Georg Essl, an assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science as well as music. “The way they think about their creative process changes. It’s more of an expressive versus problem-solving creativity. It’s really enlightening.”
Student Anton Pugh participated in several performances last year, including one where students programmed iPod Touches to light up with different graphics when they were spun on a table. “The aesthetic component was interesting to me. He (Essl) encouraged us to go as far as we could with it,” says Pugh, who is now working on a master’s in electrical engineering with a concentration in signal processing. “It was definitely a different way of thinking for me because we not only had to make them functional but make them look good.”
Essl says students have to engage with the musicality in order to make the technology interesting and vice versa, a task that isn’t always easy. “It’s about tearing down those boundaries between art and engineering,” he says.
As the Michigan fight song chimes, “Hail!”