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Understanding the physics of music, plus a free SQUILT lesson

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We have had physics on the brain the last few months thanks to working on the Physics for the Grammar Stage update. Hence, why we have shared activities on the LEGO balloon race and the simple machine lab.

This month, we are going to continue the physics fun with a look at the physics of music including a free music lesson from one of our favorite resources - SQUILT Music!

The Physics for Music

What in the world do musical instruments have to do with physics? Actually, quite a lot!

The whole reason we can hear music is thanks to vibrations that form waves of sound which travel through the air. Our ears collect those waves and translate them into the music we enjoy.

Musical instruments manipulate the way these waves are produced or how they travel to produce what we can sound.

A Few Scientific Terms for Music

Let's define a few terms:

  • Sound Wave - A mechanical wave that carries sound energy through a medium.
  • Frequency - The number of waves that pass a given point in a second.
  • Pitch - The lowness or highness of a sound that is determined by the frequency of vibrations that are produced. The lower the frequency, the low the perceived pitch.
  • Decibel (dB) - The unit of loudness.
  • Amplify - To increase the volume (or magnitude) of sound.

Now that we understand some of the vocabulary terms, let's look at how different musical instruments produce vibrations, a.k.a., sound waves!

The Science of Stringed Instruments

This group of instruments includes violins, harps, and pianos - basically any instrument with strings. In these instruments, the stretched strings vibrate when you pluck, hit, or slide a bow across them.

The vibrations produced are amplified by the instrument box and by the amount that the strings vibrate. In a stringed instrument, the thicker the strings, the lower the frequency of the vibrations that are produced.

The Science of Wind Instruments

This group of instruments includes clarinets, flutes, and trumpets - basically any instrument you blow wind into. In these instruments, the vibrations are produced as the wind passes through the lips into a mouthpiece or past a reed.

The vibrations produced are amplified by the shape of the instrument. In a wind instrument, the frequencies of the vibrations are altered by keys that change the way the air flows through the instrument.

The Science of Percussion Instruments

This group of instruments includes drums, bells, and maracas - basically any instrument that you have to strike or shake. In these instruments, the vibrations are produced when you beat, scrape or shaken the instrument.

The vibrations produced are amplified by the shape of the instrument. In a percussion instrument, the frequencies are determined by the force you use to strike or shake the instrument.

So, now that we understand a bit more about the physics of music, we are ready to listen to a piece of music. And for that, we are sharing a free lesson from one of our favorite resources - SQUILT Music. As you listen, try to pick out the different instruments and think about how they produce the sound.

With that said, I'm going to turn things over to Mary Prather, the author of SQUILT Music.

A Free SQUILT Lesson

The Flight of the Bumblebee, by Rimsky-Korsakov, is such a fun piece of music for kids. Not only does it get them interested in music, but it also provides so many teaching points as well. Listen to The Flight of the Bumblebee.

This is SQUILT time! Super Quiet UnInterrupted Listening Time means our children simply listen - don’t do anything else, just attend to the music.

When the piece is over, ask your children what picture they get in their head while they are listening. Prompt them to use descriptive words (adjectives!) and/or draw a physical picture to represent the piece.

Listen again, but this time analyze the music by asking your children some specifics about the music.

  • TEMPO: What is the speed of the beat? In this case, it is FAST - and the musical term for that is VIVACE.
  • INSTRUMENTATION: What instruments do they hear? In this particular piece, they should answer with the STRING FAMILY — violins and violas, and cellos in particular.
  • DYNAMICS: Is the music loud or soft? In this case, it varies. The music is anywhere from soft (piano) to loud (forte).
  • MOOD: How does the music make you feel? Any answer goes here because it is up to the child!

Another fun thing to listen for in this piece is the use of the PIZZICATO technique by the strings. Pizzicato means the plucking of a string with the finger as opposed to using the bow. Can they hear the pizzicato in The Flight of the Bumblebee?

Wrapping it Up

We trust that you can now see the science behind music and appreciate the simplicity of setting aside a few minutes to really listen and analyze a piece of music. If you want more, be sure to check out the following resources:

  • Physics for the Grammar Stage - Our brand new, fully updated elementary physics program has hit the virtual shelves! Learn about the principles of energy, light, sound, engineering, and more in these easy-to-use science plans.
  • SQUILT Music - Mary's simple music plans are a favorite at our house. She offers a variety of volumes (and even LIVE lessons) to make teaching music appreciation simple, enjoyable, and memorable! 

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  • Paige Hudson
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