University of Rochester

Empty Bottles and Plumbing Pipes Teach Students Physics and Music

December 11, 2000

When most of us think of a musical ensemble, we don't picture a jug band. Students at the University of Rochester, however, will be tuning up their beer bottles, tightening their oatmeal drums, and filing down their plastic tubes to make Bach and Beethoven proud. Two concerts, one by physics students and one by music students, are part of classes that require students to construct their own instruments from scratch to learn about the physics behind the creation of sound.

"They get to make either a percussion or wind instrument," explains Paul Burgett, dean of students and professor of the class of music students. "They're making everything from French horns made of garden hoses and funnels, to a pipe organ contraption with a working keyboard and bellows."

David Douglass, professor of physics and astronomy, heads up the physics class. "I used to just have the students design flutes from pipes, but a few years ago, a music major asked, 'How do you know they work?' So I figured we'd better have a concert to find out."

The students in both classes work throughout the semester to machine the instruments, learning as they go about how sound is produced, amplified, and given tone and pitch. The music majors learn more about instruments, and the physics majors learn more about how to design something as complex as an instrument.

Once the makeshift instruments are built and tested, the musicians are split into small ensembles of three or four and learn how their instruments work together. "This way they begin to understand how the different sounds of different instruments strengthen or weaken each other," says Burgett. On opening day, the musicians ready their hubcaps, plungers and garden hoses for an evening of semi-impromptu performances. The students aren't required to write a whole piece, but to outline a piece that exploits their instruments' strengths and improvise to the best of their abilities.

The physics students put on a show for the physics department's holiday party, playing "Jingle Bells," "Dreidle, Dreidle, Dreidle," and other holiday songs. Those would-be engineers who present a marked inability to play a flute, are allowed to take up the sleigh bells or triangle for the event.