Threshold of Beauty is an interdisciplinary project I designed that fuses music with sciences. As part of this project, I have collaborated with a number of organizations to bring new music to students and adults alike.
After a very busy first day of my residency, spent introducing my group of students to the creative process (see story), I wanted day two to focus in on music specifically. So I decided to delve into the world of electronic circuits and have the students design there own analog synthesizers. But before we could do this, we needed to understand the science of what was really happening.
To begin, we filled a large speaker cone with water and played several different low frequency tones through it. A select few of these tones, called resonant frequencies, will cause the water to vibrate and unveil a unique way to actually visualize sound waves. As we played these low tones, it became clear that the water was vibrating because the speaker cone was rapidly moving back and forth. This triggered the concept of oscillation, which is really what sound waves are, oscillating waves. With that in mind, it was time to break out our circuits and start creating.
So we split up into groups and I handed out a simple electronic circuit, a few types of resistors and a small amplifier to each of them. We discussed the basics of a circuit and how the sound would actually be created by the oscillating of the voltage. This oscillation is provided by a simple inverter chip, which jumps back and forth between positive and negative power. We could then use resistors of all different sizes to change the speed of the oscillation and therefore change the frequency, otherwise known as the pitch, of the sound.
With one standard resistor, the synthesizer produced one constant, static pitch. With multiple resistors, we could add rhythm or multiple pitches, but the music was quite repetitive. Just as we observed in day one, this was fascinating, but not quite artistic. So I introduced potentiometers, which are resistors whose value can be changed with a knob, and photoresitors, which are resistors whose value can be changed by the amount of light they receive. With these additions, the students were able to construct a more unique instrument by mixing and matching parts. Moreover, they were able to actually perform on the synthesizer using the potentiometers and photoresistors. Now they were really creating music. Check out a few pictures from the process.
To wrap up, I wanted to briefly show the students a synthesizer project of my own, which expands on our work for the day. This instrument, titled Sharpy, utilizes three infrared distance sensors instead of potentiometers or photoresistors to control the sound. Additionally, Sharpy uses a microcontroller, called an Arduino board, which allows it to create a wide variety of sounds beyond the capability of the simple inverter chip we were using earlier. Here is an quick sample of the instrument.
So the students had a rare opportunity to experience the world of analog and digital synthesizers, while learning a bit about sound and electronics along the way. They were able to construct, create, problem solve, and even compose, making it was another successful day at Crossroads Elementary. Stay tuned for more on this experience.