Universe of Sound

Have you ever wanted to conduct an orchestra? Would you prefer to sit among the blasting brass or the sweeping strings? Could you play a crucial woodwind solo or a conspicuous cymbal crash?

Conduct like Esa-Pekka Salonen using the Philharmonia simulator

Conduct The Planets like Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The Philharmonia‘s latest exhibition, which premiered at the Science Museum and is now opening in Canterbury, allows you to get right inside the orchestra for an action-packed performance of The Planets by Gustav Holst. I wrote the text for the exhibition and you can see how the show brings the orchestra to life in a whole new way through the video below, and hear from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen who worked with Richard Slaney to conceive and create the exhibition.

At its simplest, music is a collection of sound waves – vibrations that wobble through the air until they hit our eardrums. But why does a cello sound different from a clarinet, even when playing the same note? How can we tell a double bass and a bassoon apart so easily? It was this kind of question that I wanted to tackle in the text I wrote for the exhibition, using the latest physics and acoustics research, as well as ideas from neurology, music psychology and materials science. I hoped to reveal the qualities that each instrument brings to the powerful music of Mars and the celestial shimmering of Neptune – and all the other movements of The Planets. Here’s a taster of the text from the violins and violas section.

Violin and viola

 The Planets showcases all the key techniques on the violin and viola, with soaring melodies in Venus, playful plucked notes in Mercury and tapped rhythms in Mars. So what are the scientific secrets of these instruments?

 Violins and violas are built to maximise the sound we hear when the player bows or plucks a string. The string’s vibrations travel into the instrument’s shapely, hollow body, whose vibrating area is large enough to produce loud sound waves.

 When a player bows a note on the string, they create a steady vibration called a standing wave. A string’s length, thickness and tension affect the pitch of the note, with the viola’s longer and thicker strings sounding a fifth lower than the violin’s. To play a higher note, the player presses down on a string to make it shorter and create a higher-frequency wave.

 But it’s vibrato that really makes string instruments sound special – when the player subtly wobbles the finger that’s pressing on the string. This technique changes the harmonics and resonances that we hear – and with thirty or more violinists all playing together, the effect is complex and wonderful.

Each section of text includes the latest science – for example, that Japanese scientists are experimenting with violin strings made of spider silk.

Composer Joby Talbot, Sue Mossman and me (leaning?).

The Science Museum’s Sue Mossman and me (leaning on?) composer Joby Talbot whose composition accompanies Holst’s original piece.

As part of the education pack that accompanies the exhibition, composer and animateur John Webb, along with Lindsay Wilson, commissioned a science of music Q&A. In it I seek to cover everything from ‘what makes a sound into a musical note?’ to ‘what makes some chords sound sad?’, ‘how fast does sound travel?’, ‘can music change your mood?’, and ‘why do some tunes get stuck in your head?’

It turns out that science can answer many questions, but music hasn’t given up all its secrets yet. As someone who’s played musical instruments seriously for decades, I’ve found it a real ear-opener to discover how much more there is to know about music and how we experience it.

Exhibition reviews in New Scientist, Daily Telegraph, DrownedinSound, Londonist and pictures from Classic FM.

Find out more about the acoustics of musical instruments on Joe Wolfe’s pages at the University of New South Wales.

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Universe of Sound is at the Science Museum London SW7 23 May – 8 July