The University of Southampton

UOSM2028 How Musical Instruments Work

Module Overview

Music is an art, but science has plenty to say about the physics of musical instruments, raising questions such as: • What happens to a guitar string after you pluck it? • Why aren’t harpsichords as popular as pianos? • How can we quantify the differences between two trumpets? • Will we ever be able to mass-produce Stradivarius-quality violins? • How is designing a flute different from designing an aeroplane? This module describes and discusses the physical concepts that underlie these questions, such as wave motion, resonance and sound radiation, making use of animation, simulation and visualisation technologies to make the concepts accessible to students without a background in maths or physics.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

Throughout human history, musical instruments have provoked curiosity about how they work, indeed some of the earliest developments in science and mathematics began with questions about them. This module aims to explore these questions, to present what is known and understood about the physics of musical instruments and the neuroscience of our perception of them, and to address the question of what the limits to our knowledge and understanding of them might be. As well as the overt content, musical instruments will be used as a prism through which the history of scientific ideas and their application to human activities can be examined. Traditionally this subject has been explored via the language of applied mathematics, but advances in computer simulation, measurement technology and visualisation techniques have made it possible to 'see the sound' in a way that allows non-scientists to appreciate the often subtle interplay of physical phenomena that govern the behaviour and sound of the various instruments of the orchestra and beyond. This module, therefore, aims to provide a qualitative understanding of the acoustics of all the major families of instruments in a form suitable for humanities students (including but not limited to music students) who are interested in music and instruments but don't have a mathematical background.

Learning Outcomes

Disciplinary Specific Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Qualitative understanding of the physical concepts of sound generation, radiation and perception.
  • Appreciation of the issues involved with quantifying concepts based on human perception rather than direct measurement.
  • Knowledge and understanding of the specific acoustical mechanisms pertaining to each of the major instrument families.


Introduction to Sound and Vibration: • Pitch vs Frequency • Loudness vs Amplitude • Waves, sound-speed and wavelength • Resonance and standing waves • Ears and hearing Musical Instruments: • Families of instruments • Can the 'goodness' of an instrument be quantified? • Changes to instrument – changes to its sound • High notes on low instruments vs. low notes on high instruments Strings: • Properties of strings – properties of waves on strings • Response to plucking – response to striking • Effects of stiffness, inharmonicity • Boxes, bodies and soundboards • Bowing, dynamic and static friction, stick-slip motion Brass: • Review of pressure, density, viscosity • Properties of horns and their acoustic modes • Lip vibrations, coupling to air columns Woodwind: • The acoustics of holes in tubes • Reeds and flues Percussion: • Membrane vibrations • Sound radiation The voice: • Anatomy of the vocal system • Sound generation in the larynx • Singing vs speech

Special Features

o Demonstrations of wave phenomena and musical instruments in lectures. o Lab class analysing plucked strings on electric guitars.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

The material will be delivered in lectures. Lectures will be recorded (including video of demonstrations) for private study. Learning will be enhanced through online self-testing and quizzes and a weekly tutorial will be held. A lab class will allow students to make measurements on real instruments.

Preparation for scheduled sessions12
Practical classes and workshops3
Wider reading or practice18
Completion of assessment task57
Follow-up work24
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list


Background textbook. Measured Tones by Ian Johnstone, published by the Institute of Physics is a useful accompanying text, but is out of print; I'm investigating the possibility of an authorized reprint


Assessment Strategy



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay 35%
Essay 35%
Laboratory Report 30%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework assignment(s) 35%
Coursework assignment(s) 35%
Lab Marks carried forward 30%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

Linked modules

This module is open to students on any non-mathematical programme; if in doubt please check with the Module Lead. Students on mathematical (science or engineering) may be able to take ISVR3063 Musical Instrument Acoustics instead.

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