STEM Gallery at MIM studies link between music and science
January 23, 2018
By David M. Brown
“If it sounds good, it is good,” the great Duke Ellington responded when asked about music.
But what is the science behind the skillfully coordinated sound that constitutes music? The STEM Gallery, a recent addition to the Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Boulevard in North Phoenix, is focusing on the connection between music and science. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. The gallery explores themes of sound creation, technological innovation, the human ear, hearing safety and other topics.
“For years, we have offered a STEM + Music field trip option, and this new gallery takes our commitment to STEM education to the next level,” said Brian Dredla, the MIM’s director of education and public programs.
The STEM Gallery, though, has been tuned for multigenerational appeal. Anyone who wants to learn more about the science behind some of their favorite instruments and how humans experience sound will enjoy visiting.
“Our guests have a variety of musical backgrounds,” said Dredla, whose background blends biology and clarinet performance. “Some play instruments, while others do not. We wanted to create a space that gives guests of all backgrounds a glimpse into the science behind music.
“The STEM Gallery challenges guests to think about and appreciate music and musical instruments in new ways. It’s a great example of something that has been created to resonate with our guests and tell a more complete story about music. The space was designed for anyone with an interest in music or science, or both.”
Highlights of the gallery include slow-motion and Schlieren video footage of musical-instrument vibrations, including selections courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This shows that musical instruments, despite their differences, all vibrate to create sound waves. Schlieren images show the detailed flow of air currents caused, in this case, by the sound waves.
Visitors also can learn about physics of musical instruments and their distinct sounds, or timbres. They can see a deconstructed Stratocaster electric guitar showing its innovative construction and encounter instruments from around the world that highlight different means of sound production, including electronic instruments used in digital music.
“In other sections, we highlight how creativity and innovation have led to advances in instrument design and construction and how technology has fueled new genres of music and new ways to listen to recorded music,” Dredla said.
Museum associates such as Katie Runyan, Justin Gillespie and Kortney Carr were integral to the gallery’s development. In addition, the MIM team worked with animators and developers at Ansr Source in Dallas to create original video content, such as three videos explaining how different notes are played on three different instruments.
The MIM team also worked with Maplewood, Minnesota-based 3M and Dangerous Decibels at the University of Northern Colorado-Greeley to bring a hearing safety mannequin, “Jolene,” into the STEM Gallery.
The Dangerous Decibels public health campaign strives to reduce noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus by changing knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of school-age children.
“Jolene mannequins are used nationwide to educate people about hearing safety and the need to monitor sound levels when listening to music on personal devices,” Dredla explained.
A recent invited guest, scholar Edward R. Flynn, Ph.D., found the scientific and technical description of music “outstanding.” He is an adjunct professor of physics and a research professor of computer engineering at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
“The description of the anatomy of the ear, the role of hair cells in the cochlea in detecting vibrations evoked by sound, and the sections of the brain responding to this sound appeals to the viewer who wants to understand the science behind the perception of music,” he said.
“The STEM exhibit presents this in a way that the curious child and the fact-seeking adult will find equally stimulating.”