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New insights into the acoustics of the mandolin

August 08, 2017

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Associate Professor and Department Chair of Physics Dr. Stephen Tufte has been awarded a $211,649 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.  This three-year project, “RUI: Musical Acoustics: Coupled Oscillators, Mandolin Bridges, and Holographic Interferometry” is a comprehensive experimental investigation of the acoustics of the mandolin. Supported by NSF’s Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) and Integrative Activities in Physics programs, this three-year research project is specifically designed to provide transformative experiences and training to undergraduate students by captivating their interest in hands-on research and providing rigorous training in its methods. NSF funding includes stipends for at least six Lewis & Clark undergraduate students to engage in research full-time during the summers and three high school students to join them, to be hired through Saturday Academy.  

A central theme of the planned research is that a musical instrument can be thought of as a system of coupled harmonic oscillators. As part of this project, Dr. Tufte and his students will investigate the coupling of the doubled strings of the instrument, measure the impedance of the bridge and its impact on the sound spectrum, and apply advanced dynamics theory to understanding the low-frequency resonances of the mandolin. In doing so, undergraduates will be exposed to a wide variety of experimental techniques and scientific instruments. The study of musical instruments is of great interest to students, many of whom are themselves musicians, and the subject provides a uniquely accessible context for connecting sophisticated experimentation to complex physics theory. Beyond the scientific advances, new insights into the acoustics of the mandolin have the potential to provide advice to luthiers and musicians on how to improve the instrument and its’ playing.

In addition to the hands-on research opportunities provided, this NSF award will help continue the development of Lewis & Clark’s Musical Acoustics Laboratory, which benefits a larger number of students including the students in Dr. Tufte’s recently developed Physics of Music Course as well as physics majors in the Advanced Lab class. Bringing this research project into the classroom allows a wide range of students to learn distinctly scientific approaches to problems in a naturally appealing and accessible context.

Learn more about this award here and Dr. Tufte’s Research here

August 2017

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