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The Sound of Science - 'Steelpan Acoustics'

Newt: You're listening to The Sound of Science on WNIJ. I'm Newt with NIU STEAM. April marks the 50th anniversary of NIU's CSA Steelband. So we're talking to steelpan aficionados to get some insight this month. Today, hear Jay Smith explain acoustics.

Jay: What is common to most musical instruments is that something is vibrating which then vibrates the air then that's what we hear. That musician has to control these vibrations, typically the amplitude which is a loudness of frequency, which we might say is pitch and then the timbre, which would be the frequency spectrum. What's different about instruments is what is vibrating. It could be a column of air, we refer to that as an aerophone. It could be a string, such as a violin, or piano or guitar, that would be a chordophone. It could be a membrane like the drum, that would be a membranophone. Or it could be like in the case of a steelpan, it could be the body of the instrument itself, and that would be an idiophone. Now, some of the key factors that you have to control in order to control the frequency would be the tension like in the string, you would adjust that tension usually prior to the performance, the density of the material, or the stiffness of the material, and that's usually like in a stringed instrument would be changing which string you're choosing to play, and then the length of the string as you move your hand up and down the fretboard. But in the case of the steelpan, you're mainly just selecting different notes and controlling the amplitude, although where you strike the note also will have a little effect on the timbre itself. So therefore you are extremely, very dependent upon a quality tuner to control those other factors that have to be taken into account prior to the performance.

Newt: Remember to catch the steelband's anniversary performance on April 16. This has been the sound of science on WNIJ where you learn something new every day

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