The Science of Musical Instruments and Acoustics PHYS1020

  • Academic Session: 2023-24
  • School: School of Physics and Astronomy
  • Credits: 20
  • Level: Level 1 (SCQF level 7)
  • Typically Offered: Semester 2
  • Available to Visiting Students: Yes

Short Description

An introduction to the nature of musical sound and the basic science governing the behaviour of musical instruments. This is open to students from all colleges and requires no prior science background.


Students undertaking this course will receive 38 hours of contact teaching - 10 three hour workshop sessions, including project work, tutorial and excursions, and 8 hours of lectures delivered through a combination of live teaching and recorded material.

Requirements of Entry


Excluded Courses





Final Examination 50%

A final examination will be held in the April/May exam diet to test whether students have achieved the course intended learning outcomes.


Reports 50%

The students will be required to provide two written reports (ca. 1500 words), describing activities carried out in the workshop.

Main Assessment In: April/May

Are reassessment opportunities available for all summative assessments? No

A resit examination will be provided in the August resit examination diet for all students who do not meet the satisfactory threshold grade (D3) following their first examination attempt. However, for practical reasons, it is not possible to allow resubmission of the report.

Course Aims

The course will provide students with a detailed knowledge of the science principles of acoustics and musical instruments. It also aims to develop a range of basic measurement skills, analysis techniques and report writing skills. 

Intended Learning Outcomes of Course

 By the end of this course students will be able to:


1. Waves

(a) Draw a diagram of a wave labelled with amplitude and wavelength.

(b) Explain the difference between transverse and longitudinal waves.

(c) State and use the wave equation (v = f λ), and the relationship between period and frequency (T = 1/f ).

(d) Draw a diagram of a standing wave labelled with node and antinode.

(e) State that standing waves arise due to the superposition of a wave with its reflection.

(f) Explain the difference between time domain and frequency domain.


2. Sound and music

(a) State that sound is a longitudinal, pressure wave, and travels at approx 340m/s in air.

(b) Draw a schematic diagram of the human ear and explain the functions of the different parts.

(c) State the approximate range of human hearing.

(d) State that musical instruments produce standing waves.

(e) Explain the relationship between measured wave quantities and perceived sound (loudness/amplitude, pitch/fundamental frequency, timbre/spectrum+envelope).


3. Scales

(a) State that notes whose frequencies are ratios of small numbers sound "better" together, and this is the basis of musical scales.

1(b) Explain the terms "just intonation" and "just interval".

(c) Explain the pythagorean scale, and the pythagorean comma.

(d) Explain the term "temperament".

(e) Describe the difference between a diatonic and chromatic scale.

(f) Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the 12-EDO scale.


4. Instruments

(a) Explain timbre in terms of spectrum and envelope.

For each class of instrument (stringed, wind, brass, voice and percussion):

i. Draw a diagram illustrating the means of sound production.

ii. Describe the way in which sound is produced.

iii. Discuss the differences between instruments in the class. (eg single vs double reeded, bowed vs plucked)

(b) Measure and discuss the dymamic range and timbre of instruments using smart phone app and computer software.

(c) Explain how sound is generated in an electric guitar.

(d) Give examples of the methods of generating sounds in electronic instruments.

(e) Discuss the differences between acoustic and electronics instruments.


5. Architectural Acoustics

(a) State and use the formula giving the decibel difference between two sounds of a given intensity ratio,

and define the Sound Pressure Level of a sound.

(b) Measure the SPL of a range of sounds using a meter, smartphone app or computer.

(c) Define the reverberation time of a room.

(d) Discuss the acoustical properties desirable in buildings (eg Concert halls, Opera houses, lecture rooms)

(e) Measure the reverberation time for a room by using a smartphone app, or meter.


6. Recording

(a) Draw a diagram of a loudspeaker, and explain how it works.

(b) Explain the difference between analogue and digital recording.

(c) Draw a diagram illustrating the conversion of an analogue to digital signal

(d) Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of digital and analogue recording.

(e) Discuss the relative environmental impact of listening to a track on vinyl and in lossless digital format.


7. Measurement

(a) Demonstrate the use of audio measurement software tools on Android and Computer.

(b) Discuss the difference between systematic and statistical errors in measurement.

(c) Write a report of a workshop project

Minimum Requirement for Award of Credits

Attendance at 50% of the workshops.


Attendance at both field trips.


Submission of at least 75% by weight of the components (including examinations) of the course's summative assessment.