Spring 2003

In this first-year seminar course, we learn about how sound is produced by musical instruments, and how those sounds have been used in music-making from the twelfth century to the present day.  Like its subject, the course is a mixture of the objective/technical and the subjective/aesthetic, and the class provides a model of how the two types of analysis can fruitfully be brought to bear on a single topic.

The students make use of their understanding of the acoustics of conventional instruments to design and build unique instruments of their own.  The "Grand Finale" of the class is a concert played upon those instruments, which is open to the public.   Some pictures and video clips from the 1999 performances can be found here, and pictures from the 2000 performance are  here. Wind instruments made by this year's class are pictured here. The stringed instruments made by the 2000 class are here, and the wind instruments they made are  here.
(If you would like to see the stringed instruments the students made by the students in the 1999 class, click here.  Their wind instruments are shown here.)  Other pictures from the Fall 2000 class are found  here.

No, these students do not have turnips in their ears. They are using Helmholtz resonators to help them hear the higher partials of a compound tone.


Prof. Laurie McNeil
Dept. of Physics and Astronomy
Phillips Hall 166
 photos courtesy of Dan Sears, UNC News Bureau
Prof. Brent Wissick
Dept. of Music
Hill Hall 102
Class meetings: Tuesdays 2:00 - 2:50 p.m.
  Thursdays 2:00 - 3:40 p.m.
  Phillips Hall 275 or Hill Hall 202 (as announced)
Final exam: Tuesday, May 6 at 2:00 p.m. in Phillips Hall 275
Textbooks: Measured Tones by Ian Johnston
  On the Sensations of Tone by Hermann Helmholtz
  The Six Brandenburg Concertos by J.S. Bach
  Additional articles posted on class website


Each student is expected to do the assigned reading before coming to the class for which it is designated, and to participate in class discussions and other activities.

Grading: 5% Shorter assignments (2)
  20% Etude reports (4)
  15% Oral presentations (3, including Grand Finale)
  20% Longer assignments (3)
  10% Midterm exam
  20% Final exam
  10% Class participation 

Enrolled students can find more detailed information about the assignments (and much else) here.


January 7 Hill 202

Introduction to course; objective and subjective analyses

January 9 Phillips 275

Simple harmonic motion, waves, superposition

MT 1-4, 28-36, 56-67, App. 2; H 25-36

January 14 Hill 202

Music theory, ancient Greek theory 

MT 4-16; H 15-17, 257-261

Physics concept exercise due

January 17 Hill 202

Triads and scales, Greek modes, overtones 

MT 17-27; H 50-51, 262-263

"Who I am" statements must be posted by Jan. 15

January 21 Phillips 275

Violin and guitar families; Standing waves on a string 

MT 44-47, 131-111; H 36-49

Music exercise due

January 23 Phillips 275

Etude #1: plucked and hammered strings 

MT 88-119; Etude instructions from Website

January 28 Hill 202

Visit from John Pringle, luthier

A Night at the Opera II: Arias, Duos and Variations by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Beethoven. Faculty recital by Prof. Wissick, with faculty, students and guest artists. 8:00 p.m. in Hill Hall, free admission.

Report on Etude #1 due

January 30 Hill 202

Differences within the string family; cavity modes; physics of the bowed string

MT 119-130; "Physics of Violins", "Concerto for Pencilina and Sewer Flute," "Physics of the Bowed String"

February 4 Hill 202

Brandenburg #3 and #6; strings played together

February 6 Phillips 275

Etude #2:  real stringed instruments

H 80-86; Etude instructions from Website

February 11 Hill 202

Brandenburg #5; Keyboard family; sound boards

MT 74-85; H 74-80;"Acoustics of the Harpsichord," "Physics of the Piano"

Rewrite of Etude #1 report due
Report on Etude #2 due

February 13 Phillips 275

Oral presentations on home-made stringed instruments

February 18 Phillips 275

Temperaments; original vs. modern instruments

MT 67-73, App. 3; H 310-330

February 20  Hill 202

Percussion: membranes and bars

MT 247-264; H 40-41

February 25 Person Recital Hall

Keyboards and temperaments continued: visit from Elaine Funaro


"How my instrument works" paper due

February 27 Hill 202

Percussion continued: real instruments

"Physics of Kettledrums"

March 4 Hill 202

"Argument" discussion

March 6 Hill 202

In-class exam

March 18 Phillips 275

Wind instruments; organ pipes; 

Visit to the University Methodist Church pipe organ at 3:00 p.m.

MT 41-43, 178-191; H 88-102 

March 20 Hill 202

Orchestration, registers; Brandenburg  #2

Adler 266-282, 284-302

"Argument" paper due

March 25 Phillips 275

Reeds: valves and columns; Flutes and turbulence

MT 210-220;"Physics of Wood Winds"

March 27 Phillips 275

Etude #3: pipe length and finger holes 

MT 191-210, App. 5; "Physics of Organ Pipes"; Etude instructions from Website

April 1 Phillips 275

Brass: a flare for sound 

MT 37-40, review App. 5

Report on Etude #3 due

April 3 Phillips 275

Etude #4: end bells 

MT 48-55; Etude instructions from Website

Free topic choice due

April 8  Hill 202

Brass continued: orchestration 

Adler 311-325

Report on Etude #4 due

April 10  Hill 202

Oral presentations on home-made wind instruments

Psychoacoustics: tonotopic organization 

MT 227-246


April 15 Hill 201 (piano lab)

Psychoacoustics continued: auditory illusions

CP "Pitch, periodicity, and auditory organization"

Free topic bibliography due

April 17  Phillips 275

Concert hall acoustics: Hark the sound of Tar Heel spaces

MT 152-170, 237-239, App. 4

April 22 Phillips 275

Concert hall acoustics continued: Sabine and beyond

"Science and Art Converge in Concert Hall Acoustics"

Free topic paper due

April 22 Person Recital Hall

The Grand Finale: original compositions on original instruments


Reading assignments: MT is Measured Tones, H is On the Sensations of Tone, Adler is The Study of Orchestration, which is on reserve in the Music Library, all other titles refer to articles posted on the website.