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Music plus physics equals acoustical engineering

Do you love music but also physics and can’t decide which path to choose? You don’t have to choose – you can do both, if you choose acoustical engineering!

Acoustics is the science of sound and vibration. Acoustical engineering is involved with the control, design and analysis of sound. A career as an acoustical engineer is therefore an amazing way of combining a love of music with a passion for physics.

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Musical acoustics

Musical acoustics involves researching and describing the physics of music. It is about exploring music, speech and other sounds and analysing how they work.  Expert acoustical design is vital for concert halls and recording studios so that the music being played sounds perfect.

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Amar G. Bose was a visionary engineer, inventor and billionaire entrepreneur whose company, the Bose Corporation is one of the biggest names in home stereo systems. The former M.I.T student realised that 80 percent of the sound experienced in a concert hall was indirect, ie. it bounced off walls and ceilings before reaching the audience.

He used this discovery, using basic concepts of physics to invent a new type of stereo speaker based on psychoacoustics, the study of sound perception. His design incorporated multiple small speakers aimed at the surrounding walls, rather than directly at the listener, to reflect the sound and recreate the larger sound heard in concert halls.

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Architectural acoustics

A career in designing buildings where the focus is on their acoustics is known as architectural acoustics. For example, in a theatre you want the audience to hear the actor loud and clear. In a restaurant, you want the atmosphere to be buzzing but not deafening. And at a concert or recording, you want the quality of music to sound pitch-perfect.

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Different surfaces absorb or reflect sound differently because they produce different shaped waves. By angling reflective surfaces, waves can then be specifically directed to provide good coverage of sound to the listener. Fabric-covered walls and panels are used to absorb sound, or sound proof rooms.

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Extraordinary buildings

There are some buildings around the world that feature quite extraordinary acoustics, both man-made and naturally occurring. At St Paul’s Cathedral in London, there is the famous circular whispering gallery, where a sound made on one side can be clearly heard on the other side of the 33m diameter dome! This occurs because sound waves are reflected around the concave walls.

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The amazing Epidaurus Amphitheatre dates all the way back to the 4th century BC. It could seat up to 14,000 people and they were all able to hear actors and performers right from the back row. But how? They didn’t have microphones back then!

In fact, the reason the sound carried so well in the amphitheatre was due to the material of the seating – limestone. The limestone actually filters the noise – it absorbs low frequency noises (background noise) and reflects the high frequency ones back out to the audience. The shape of the theatre also helps, as the slope allows surface sound waves to be carried upwards to the back rows.

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If you would like to combine music with physics, then acoustical engineering could be the perfect career for you! 

There are also a whole host of jobs in music requiring Maths and Physics skills. See if you can guess what this man’s job is…

For a host of other jobs in STEM check out our career profile section.