Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Music, electron clouds, and mass flow.

Of great importance to me is figuring out how to get my students to make connections. As we work on learning about science I think almost universally, it's more important to conceptualize and connect the material then to get the "facts" right. This is not to say that the content is not important. It's just that the wonderful abstract reasoning that goes into understanding this stuff is a skill students will use for the rest of their lives, way beyond the time when they forget the subject matter along with my name. They pay me the big bucks to gift students with the skill of abstract reasoning. Or at least to introduce it to them. 

In a sense I'm in an ideal teaching situation. My students are non-science majors. I'm not needing to teach them any content for any kind of "professional" exam they'll have to take outside of the assessments I write myself. The other thing is that I teach in an interdisciplinary program at Boston University. My students are used to taking courses in a range of disciplines and we sometimes succeed in connecting our teaching and learning programs among the departments. Next semester we will be focusing on a new and somewhat unusual theme--making the invisible visible. My faculty team is hoping to nurture our students' imagination, trying to get them to play around and build ideas from unconnected, perhaps hidden sources. In general our students don't get enough of this kind of exercise. But it's at the heart  of abstract reasoning. Can we consider this problem within the context of a musical score?

Racing away on the stationary bicycle at my gym this morning I was listening to Bach's Two and Three Part Inventions and following along with a scrolling score. I don't read music but I can follow. And I started to think, with all my recent explorations into the behavior of electron clouds, can we see the notes on a score in a similar fashion? While the actual fingers of the musician hit a particular key at a particular moment (or somewhere around a particular moment), may we consider that that position and that moment are measurable statistically? A slight delay, a hesitation, a stressed note or a trill adding their variable qualities to the physical act? If so, is there is a particular statistical relevance to when and where the musician's fingers will touch the keyboard?

Pretty amazing questions if you consider how close music is to an abstract expression of human cognitive and emotional experience. Abstract reasoning on many levels. The big question is whether I can get my students to think along these lines. Can I have them listen to this music, perhaps in lecture? I thought to myself how strangely cool it would be to tweet the link to this YouTube site to my students, and to ask them to pull out their earbuds and listen to a couple of the Inventions, trying to follow the score just as I have. 

I'd like to take the exercise one step further. Perhaps we could do this as I finish off a short series of lectures on water, where I end with the concept of mass flow. Can the sequence of notes in a score be considered as a series of molecules floating past us? The unique orbitals of each chord and series somehow represented by the black notes against a white screen? And can we conceptualize the flow of the music as comparable to a mass flow of water molecules? I'd love to hear if anyone has done this thought experiment with students. What did you observe? 

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