Physics 175: Physics of Musical Sound


This course provides a basic understanding of how the laws, ideas, and methods of Physics can provide insight into the nature of musical sound. Starting with an examination of the fundamental physical ideas of waves and oscillations and of their production, propagation, and detection, we shall examine how musical instruments operate, how the setting in which a sound is played influences the sound we hear, and how the ear itself works.

For much of the course we will work quite closely through the textbook with much class time given to demonstrations and experiments to illuminate the ideas in the reading. The last part of the course will feature a looser structure so that small groups of students can work on separate projects of interest to them. These projects might include a more detailed study of a particular instrument family, research into the acoustics of halls and auditoria, or an examination of one of the boundaries between electronics and music, such as electronic synthesis, CD players, or streaming audio methods.

The course will culminate in a set of public presentations of the projects. Ideally the projects will produce small web sites presenting their work. These will be used in the presentation and then left in place for the world to see for the next semester or two.

The course will make some use of mathematics up to and including high-school algebra and trigonometry.


The text for this course is

The Science of Sound (3rd Edition)
Rossing, Moore, & Wheeler
Addison Wesley
ISBN 0-8053-8565-7


It has been a number of years since this course was last taught and I have changed the textbook for this time so I have only a tentative idea of how the course will run.

We will concentrate on the first three sections of the book (Chapters 1-14) which lay the basis for our understanding of musical sound. What we do after that will depend on how fast we get through that material and also upon where the interests of the class lie.

I anticipate that we will cover the first two chapters in the first week and then move on to study the propagation of sound for a few days. We will mix chapter 4 through these two weeks rather than giving at a week to itself. Then we will go look at how we hear and study our sound perception abilities and learn a little of how our perception is tied to the underlying physics.

Course Structure and Assignments

I shall, for the most part, rely on the book to present the basic ideas of the course and hope to use our class time to demonstrate the ideas in the readings. The intent of the demonstrations will be to promote some class discussion of the ideas in the readings so you should come to class ready to answer questions on the day's readings. Occasionally we will use the class time for hands-on experiences including trips to other places on campus.

Once a week we shall have a short (about 15 minute) quiz covering the previous week's material. These quizzes will be made up of short questions on the basic facts of the material and I will post a summary of the week's material at least one day before the quiz.

There will be weekly homeworks in the first part of the course, mostly made up from problems in the textbook. There are short answers to most of the book problems in the back of the text and so I shall be giving credit for the working that is shown and not for correct answers. A good homework answer is one that clearly explains how you have obtained your answer, starting from the basic physical facts.

There will be two 3-hour take-home exams, one in about week 5 and one in about week 10. They will be open book and will test you ability to apply the material of the course.

In the last four weeks of the semester the class will form small groups to work on group projects. I expect a typical group to consist of 2-4 students (though individuals with good class records and very clear plans may be allowed to work on their own). I anticipate that class time will then become less formal and plan no exams, labs, or quizzes in this part of the course. During the last week of classes each group will present the results of their research to the whole class in a public (open to anyone who wishes to attend) forum. There will be up to 9 half-hour slots for groups to present their work and each member of the group will be required to have a speaking role. At the end of exam week, each student will submit a short (about 4 page) paper describing their project. While the presentations will be a group effort, the papers will be quite individual.



Fraction of Course Grade

About 10 homeworks, each of equal value


About 10 quizzes, each of equal value


Two exams, of equal value (10% each)


Group grade for the project, same grade to each team member


Final paper grade (individual)


Physics 175