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In Depth: Science, Society and the Arts

Science, Society, and the Arts is a multi-disciplinary conference involving Washington and Lee undergraduates and law students in the presentation of their academic achievements before an audience of their peers and the faculty. Conference participants share their work via oral presentations, traditional academic conference-style panels, poster sessions, artistic shows, or creative performances.

In the weeks leading up to the conference on March 12-13, we will profile a few of the projects being presented by students.

Briefly describe your research project.

The choirs at W&L (University Singers, Cantatrici, and Men’s Glee Club) will be performing several different pieces that utilize varying techniques for creating sound: different voicings of ensembles, harmonic overtone singing, creation of resonant frequencies via wine goblets and hand chimes, etc. The pieces will focus on the physics of the many ways sound can be produced.

What about this project called you to exploration?

Many of the members of the choirs are music/science double majors or just science majors with a great interest in singing. Having a project that can combine these student interests within the spirit of SSA seemed ideal.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working in this subject matter?

The unique manner in which tone can be produced, including the wide variety of ways to use the human voice, has opened up the possibility for great exploration of the science of music. It is also fascinating how different vocal approaches/techniques can produce vastly different sounds.

What was the biggest challenge in completing this project?

The biggest challenge was definitely the amount of time and effort required to be able to learn and perform these pieces. The University Singers meet four days a week, while the Men’s Glee Club and Cantatrici meet three days a week, and all have been rehearsing these pieces for some time. Other challenges were learning to actually produce the overtones-which requires that the piece stays in perfect tune-or singing along with resonating wine goblets-which produce an inconsistent and constantly bending pitch as the lattice structure of the crystal vibrates.

What insight(s) did you gain from creating this project?

The greatest insight is that our minds should be open to more realms of ways in which the arts and music combine. Often musical performance and a science like physics are thought of as disparate fields of study, but in actuality, they are both quite similar. Both require a high level of creativity, and each area’s knowledge base compliments the other quite effectively.

What was your favorite part of creating this project?

The chance to perform a work that calls for tuned, resonating wine goblets. That is just a surreal experience.

In your mind, what is the value of considering science, society and the arts in the same context?

Particularly in music, it is impossible to separate science, society, and the arts. Music falls into the “arts” category, but every note sung and all of the chords created can be explained by physics. Furthermore, music has an extremely important role in society, as it often reflects the period and shows the evolution of society over time.