As we prepare for the start of our first BSc course this September, we’re exploring the connection between sound and science and what students stand to gain from choosing this type of degree.
Music and science are poles apart in many people’s minds. Music, with its universal capacity to encode and elicit human emotion, is a powerful form of expression. As a result is typically considered an art. Meanwhile, science, with its strong emphasis on structure, control and technicality, is rarely regarded as creative.
In actual fact, sound, music and science have much to learn from each other and the interplay of these disciplines presents huge potential for progress and innovation. That’s why, earlier this year, dBs Sound & Music Institute launched its first BSc (Bachelor of Science) in Sound Design and Audio Programming. As we gear up for the course’s official start date in September, we decided to delve deeper into the value a scientific approach can bring to sound studies and how students can benefit from pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree.
Sound and science: what’s the connection?
“Music is a creative subject that’s traditionally embedded within the arts, but music is so much more than that,” Oli Brand, Centre Manager at dBs Bristol tells me. “It is maths, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and technology. Music is the language of the world.”
Despite the fact that most music and audio technology courses are classified as Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees, sound and science are inextricably interconnected and present the potential to enrich each other on a number of levels.
“As Boards of Canada put it,” Oli says, “music is maths. “To compose music is to work within a mathematical framework of rhythms and pitch frequencies. When these compositions are performed, physics enables us to study the vibrations in the air (otherwise known as sound waves) created. When these sound waves are received by our auditory system, then we are entering into the realms of biology.
Tempo, rhythm and pitch all have numerical qualities, which makes mixing music a type of math
“It is thanks to advances in engineering and technology that we are able to capture sound waves and replay them for our own listening pleasure, as well as manipulate how audio is physically experienced in different spaces.”
“Then there’s the question of why we enjoy certain variations in melody, rhythm, timbre and tone. Science can help here too. The neuroscience of music helps us understand how the brain processes these vibrations and elicits physical and emotional responses. Through music, we can learn much about the human brain.”
There are few things that stimulate the brain the way music does
The benefits of a BSc
The potential presented by science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to advance the study of sound is enormous, which is why dBs Institute is kicking off its first BSc (Bachelor of Science) in Sound Design and Audio Programming this September.
Compared to BA degrees which tend to explore theoretical ideas about subjects, BSc degrees tend to have a more technical and practical focus. This kind of approach is hugely beneficial within sound-related disciplines when it comes to developing audio solutions that work with cutting-edge technologies.
“Sound is an intrinsic part of our everyday activities and as our obsession with technology increases the requirement for more technically-skilled audio professionals. A sound designer today not only has to be able to manipulate sound but also implement this within software applications, integrate audio within bespoke programmes for clients or engineer interfacing hardware for physical interaction.”
BSc degrees require a more mathematical and analytical approach
Combining science and creativity
Despite the technical focus of a BSc degree, pursuing a scientific approach to sound studies does not eliminate the potential for creativity. “Working at the forefront of artificial intelligence, human-computer interfacing, immersive audio and software development are exciting prospects”, Oli tells me. “They have a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths, but crucially, they demand creativity and a passion for music and sound.
“For example, the programming of code requires maths and the processing of audio requires an understanding of physics, but to develop an audio plugin that not only works well and sounds great but is aesthetically pleasing and musically tuned also requires an artistic and creative mind.”
“Combining science and art brings together the best elements of each discipline, cultivating graduates who are able to demonstrate advanced skills in engineering and technology as well as a creative perspective to problem-solving.”
The ability to programme audio is a sought-after skill in the sound industry
Artistic intelligence combined with an aptitude for STEM-based subjects is a highly sought-after skill set – and an increasingly common recruitment requirement amongst respected audio companies.
“Learning the technical skills and augmenting them with artistic vision and a creative approach to design sets you up for a bright and exhilarating future. This course offers you the opportunity to develop a portfolio of work that covers a wide range of technical and creative skills, enhancing future employment possibilities. The scientific approach will enable you to master the process of observation, investigation, prototyping and testing, encouraging you to innovate and inspire through your work.”
A project that brings together sound, neuroscience and embedded chip technology
Mindflow: A case study
The power of combining science and art in the creation of audio-based solutions is illustrated by ‘Mindflow’, a project currently being developed by dbs-i, dBs Institute’s research and innovation lab. ‘Mindflow’ is a wearable device designed to help users into a state of calm and relaxation. It works by measuring heart rate variations and delivering 3D 'sound-story-scapes' to the wearer, driven by this real-time data.
“Science and creativity have complemented each other in many ways in this project,” Dr John Matthias, Head of Research at dbs-i said. “The original idea was to blend soundscapes and music with research into the vagal system (which plays an important role in our emotional regulation, social connection and fear response) and embedded chip technology. At each turn in the project, the contextual, technical and creative were combined in order to make decisions.
John Matthias and Jay Auborn recording the sound-story-scapes for 'Mindflow'
“We have also implemented a Markov Model (common in mathematical physical modelling) within the audio programming which creates a framework for a nonlinear audio journey experience based on a reading of the anxiety of the user. The tactile motors which touch the skin were developed by Diego Maranan in an EU funded project called 'Cognovo' focusing on Cognitive Innovation at Plymouth University. The science of perception is important to this project as is the idea of minimal cues.”