The physics of music

Well done to Nelly for her submission which demonstrated how physics powers her passion for music. Take a look at her cover letter below:

I think that music is the most beautiful thing in the world. But what I have realised during my research for this competition is that the physics behind music is just as incredible as the sound itself. In the video, you hear a snippet of my composition, The Night Tree, being played by members of the Philharmonia orchestra. This is a piece of music that tells the story of a thriving ecosystem being destroyed by a tree falling in the dead of night – an event metaphorically linked to the biodiversity crisis.

Next, I run through the workings of the two instruments heard in the extract: piano and cello. The strings inside these instruments vibrate in transverse waves, which the instruments’ body/sound board transform into longitudinal oscillations in air pressure (sound).

Finally, I explain the principles of standing waves, and how harmonics are created on stringed instruments. I use a harmonic at the end of my composition to signify anger at the state of the world’s wild places.

It may be noted that, although I only cover the creation of the 1st and 2nd harmonics, by adding more nodes, many more harmonics can be created on a string of constant length.