Glenbrook South Year-End Projects

The Physics of Musical Instruments

Basic Research Questions


Your role as researcher for this project involves acquiring a wealth of technical information about the ability of musical instruments to produce sound and the characteristics of the sounds which they produce. The process of conducting a literature search should yield some basic information about waves, wave behavior, sound, music, harmonics, standing waves and musical instruments. Some basic topics for research and ultimate discussion have been listed below to assist you in the initial stages of your literature search. The role of this listing is to provide an initial framework for your literature search and not a conclusive list of topics to be discussed. Your group is expected to go beyond these topics, exploring diverse areas of individual interest about sight and sound in nature.

  1. Explain what a wave is and distinguish it from other forms of energy transfer.
  2. Define and distinguish between the different ways of categoring waves.
  3. Using words and diagrams, describe the various properties of a wave.
  4. Using words and diagrams, describe a variety of behaviors and phenomenon associated with waves, including such behaviors and phenomenon as interference, superposition, the doppler effect, the formation of bow waves and shock waves, diffraction, refraction, reflection, and absorption.
  5. Define what a standing wave is and explain how it is formed using words and diagrams; discuss the formation of nodes and antinodes and the mathematical relationship between the length of a medium and the wavelength of a standing wave for any given standing wave pattern.
  6. Describe the basic nature of a sound wave.
  7. Explain how sound waves are produced and how sound waves are propagated through a medium such as air or water.
  8. Describe the various properties of sound waves (intensity, frequency, wavelength, speed, amplitude) and relate these properties to the observable features of sound.
  9. Distinguish between music and noise.
  10. Explain the general means by which any musical instrument produces its sound and explain specifically how different types of instruments (string instruments and air column instruments) produce their various sounds.
  11. Discuss the concept of resonance and explain how certain objects resonate at a particular frequency or set of frequency; give examples using both numerical values and standing wave diagrams.
  12. Define and discuss the concepts of fundamental frequency and the harmonics produced by an instrument; explain the mathematical relationships between the frequencies produced by various instruments.
  13. Use standing wave diagrams, mathematical relationships, and the features of an instruments (and its medium) to explain how specific frequencies are created by specific instruments - including string instruments and open- and closed-end air column instruments.
  14. Discuss the concepts of timbre, consonance and resonance.
  15. Describe what beats are and how they are produced; explain what a beat frequency is and discuss some practical applications of the use of beats and beat frequencies by musicians.
  16. Identify a few selected instruments of interest and discuss the some of the variables which are important in the construction of those instruments and explain how instrument makers are able to control these variables.
  17. Identify a few selected instruments of interest and discuss what is known about a typical waveform for a sound produced by such instruments and how such sounds can be considered a combination of waves of various frequencies.
  18. Discuss the concept of a Fourier Transfrom or a fourier analysis and explain how such an analysis can be used in the analysis of a musical instrument.
  19. Relate the concept of timbre or tonal quality to the customary psychological response of a human to a musical sound.


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Tom Henderson

Howard Jenewein

John Lewis

Neil Schmidgall

Dave Smith

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Brian Wegley

Questions and comments can be sent to Tom Henderson.

This page last updated on 2/22/98.