- “Science, Sound and Music” is a fun, unique class at the University of Mount Union combining physics and musical instruments.
- Professor Robert Ekey has taught the class periodically since 2011.
- Around 20 students built musical instruments, learned about the science of sound, and then performed a snippet of a Nicki Minaj song.
ALLIANCE − University of Mount Union professor Robert Ekey pulled a hot pink wig over his head and donned glitzy sunglasses as he readied to conduct a symphony of more than 20 physics students.
These weren’t ordinary musical instruments — each one was homemade, constructed from raw materials and spare items. Collective parts included plastic pipe, a wooden spatula, flip-flop shoes, chopsticks and drywall screws.
And this wasn’t your ordinary musical performance. A clear giveaway was Ekey’s funky combination of wig and shades, an ode to music superstar Nicki Minaj and her song, “Starships.”
Moving his hands and a baton with the precision of a maestro, the professor led the students in a snippet rendition of Minaj’s song, lasting roughly a minute.
After the tune ended, boisterous applause broke out from around 40 parents, students and staff who had gathered for the mini-concert inside the Peterson Field House on campus. Smiles beamed from both performers and the audience.
This was the final project in Ekey’s class, “Science, Sound and Music,” which transforms physics curriculum into an enlightening and unorthodox classroom experience.
Physics teacher likes Led Zeppelin and Phish
Majors vary in the class, which Ekey has taught every three years since 2011. Engineering is a common one, but past participants have included education and music majors. The class serves as an elective and not a core physics course.
“It’s well received, which is really awesome,” the physics professor said. Of the performance, he added: “Just seeing the smiles on the students’ faces is half the reason I do it.”
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The class examines the science and dynamics of acoustics, exploring how sound is produced and perceived, and the creation and interpretation of music. Other principles are the influence of room design on acoustics and how musical instruments work.
For Ekey, the class is a delight to teach, marrying his love of music and passion for physics. A fan of Led Zeppelin, Phish and a plethora of other bands and musical artists, he’s an accomplished singer and plays guitar, saxophone, piano and other instruments.
“I’m not just a physicist,” he said of the class and performance. “And they’re not just physics students — they’re trying to be more than they are.”
Brady Graham, a mechanical engineer major, said Ekey makes physics fun.
“I think that’s why a lot of us engineers, who don’t typically take a ton of the physics courses, actually come back and take a lot of his classes,” he said.
Ekey said there are similar classes taught elsewhere in the country, although the pink wig maestro styling is likely his alone.
‘Championing the liberal arts ideal’
Ekey embraced the imperfections of the quirkily entertaining performance; it wasn’t supposed to be note for note perfect, he said.
“It’s the joy of the experience,” he said. “This is championing the liberal arts ideal, and that shouldn’t just be defined by your discipline and major, and you basically should be as well-rounded of a person as possible.”
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Students completed the projects over the course of weeks. Formulas and calculations were used to tune the instruments and achieve proper pitch, at least the best they could given their materials.
“The science is good, but there are subtleties with the instruments they built, so you really have to be creative in how to make them sound like instruments,” Ekey said.
“All of the materials I got from the local Lowe’s or we pulled out of scrap, or I think, for example, the suitcase bass, that came from a backyard, so it’s all stuff that’s basically upcycled or it’s just raw materials that are built into instruments,” the educator said.
“Some of the instruments are purely from their imagination,” Ekey added. “Other ones are based off of stuff that we find online.”
‘This kind of took me out of my comfort zone.’
Even with a musical background, Aliana Metzler, a chemistry major, said the class greatly expanded her understanding of acoustics and the physics of how instruments are made and work.
“So this project actually opened my eyes to how I had to calculate how long the pipes would be, and how the vibrations of the sound waves worked, so that was really interesting to learn,” she said.
Omar Najjar, a mechanical engineering major, said he lacked musical experience.
Building a PVC pipe xylophone, Najjar said he used a formula to calculate the frequency of each note while cutting the pipes accordingly.
“Honestly, I think this kind of took me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “So I’ll be thankful for that for sure, and I think I might want to try to learn an instrument in the future.”
Annika Stankowski, a biomedical engineering major, made a kalimba, also known as a thumb piano, from a wooden box, chopsticks and metal screws.
“I love music, but I’ve never had any background in it, so that’s why this class was so exciting for me,” she said. “And I knew I had to take it.”
Concepts and theories were put into practice, Stankowski explained, what she said is a “great example of using physics to do something very real and impactful.”
‘We’re definitely not world tour ready.’
Axel Magarrell, a biomedical engineering major, crafted a slapaphone from scrap wood, drywall screws and a spatula and flip-flop purchased at Dollar Tree.
High and low notes determined the length of each pipe.
“Transferring it just from paper to physical items was a little bit of a challenge because not everything is ideal like your calculations, which is what you’re used to,” Magarrell said.
Asked if the physics symphony was ready for a bigger crowd, he smiled.
“It was fun to play and goof around … but we’re definitely not world tour ready.”
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