High school students watch a standing wave during the 2012 Jazz Fest

Sciences Makes Waves at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival

At the front of the room, a horizontal metal tube spouted a row of uniform equally spaced propane flames, like a row of birthday candles. Physics Professor Marty Ytreberg used his iPhone to send a musical tone to a speaker mounted at one of the tube's ends. The audience of high school students watched as Ytreberg adjusted the pitch of the tone upward. As the pitch reached a critical point, the audience gasped and eyes lit up as the row of flames flickered and fell into a characteristic roller coaster shape  – a vivid visual depiction of a standing wave, illustrating the physics of how wind instruments produce musical tones.

Ytreberg and fellow Physics Professor Christine Berven were presenting a workshop titled “Making Waves With Music” to participants in the University of Idaho's 2012 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. The workshop was part of a new Jazz Festival effort that aims to provide visiting high school students an introduction to the quality of UI's academic programs, while retaining a music-related theme. 

In another College of Science contribution to the festival, Mathematics Professor and Associate Dean Mark Nielsen conducted a workshop titled “Math and the Musical Scale”. In it, he used the vibration of guitar strings to introduce students to a tour of the mathematics behind the 12-tone scale on which western music is based.

“I think it's great that we now have a way to let these visiting students meet some UI faculty and have a UI classroom experience,” Nielsen says. “They may be playing in a jazz band or singing in a jazz choir, but most of them won't be music majors when they get to college. The variety offered by these workshops has really been well-received by both students and the teachers accompanying them.”

Ytreberg sees the workshops as a boost to the educational value participants get from their festival experience, as well as a way to heighten their appreciation of music. “The biggest benefit for the students is that learning some basics about the physics of sound gives them a better appreciation for how musical instruments are designed.”

With this year's workshops receiving an enthusiastic reception from Jazz Festival visitors, Nielsen anticipates that the College of Science will renew the project for next year's festival. “It was a lot of fun – we'll definitely be back next year” he said.

Associate Dean Mark Nielsen talks with students after

“I think it's great that we now have a way to let these visiting students meet some UI faculty and have a UI classroom experience.”

-Mathematics Professor and Associate Dean Mark Nielsen