On closer inspection, engineering within the field of music is not so strange at all. Building acoustic instruments, developing electronic music programs, researching acoustics and using AI in the work of composition, are all examples of what you can find within the subject of Music Engineering, and it is not a new phenomenon at Chalmers. In the 1990s for example, saw the creation of what is today a global developer of techno-synthesizers and drum machines is, namely the Gothenburg-based company Elektron. Many talented musicians have been researchers at Chalmers for a long time and sounds in general have a long research tradition at the university. Now, with the start of this course, forces have joined together to take a comprehensive look at the subject of Music Engineering.
Palle Dahlstedt, one of the teachers on the course, is a composer himself. Besides being at Chalmers, he also works with teaching at the Academy of Music and Drama at the University of Gothenburg.
“Over the years I have been struck by how similar technology, engineering and music composition and artistic creation processes are to each other,” he says.
Major initiative in new forms of education
The Tracks-course Music Engineering is held at both basic and advanced level. Chalmers’ new educational initiative, Tracks, allows students to choose independent and interdisciplinary courses in their own interest to supplement their ordinary educational programme with.
“Tracks provides the opportunity to test new interdisciplinary ideas, for which there may not have been any natural forum for previously. Teachers as well as students come from different educational areas, and experiment together, maybe sowing the seed for a new, exciting research area”, says Palle Dahlstedt.
Student, Cornelis Törnquist Sjöbeck, fills in:
“It's so much fun to meet both teachers and students with different backgrounds and knowledge. Since everyone chosen this course because of their own interest, both the social environment and the level of everything created is amazing!”
Cornelis Törnquist Sjöbeck has a Bachelor’s degree in IT and is currently doing the Master’s programme in High-Performance Computer Systems. He thinks the course in Music Engineering is a fun element in his education, and also very relevant for a future engineering career.
“Music-making is often about problem solving and creativity, and so is the engineering profession”, he says.
What is Music Engineering?
Palle Dahlstedt emphasises that it is not a course in music and engineering – they are integrated and that’s why the subject is called Music Engineering. The subject can range from different aspects of music creation, electronical music programmes, material development and so on. But it can also be anything that has to do with people’s experience of music. For example, during the course the students investigated what "Groove" really is.
You do not need to have experience of playing instruments yourself to participate in the course. It is also possible to investigate sounds linked to issues of health and security aspects. For example, something that engineers often discuss nowadays is whether an electric car should make sound, so as not to be too quiet and therefore be a traffic danger.
The Music Engineering course is divided into four sections with different themes, each with an associated workshop:
- Acoustic Instruments: About the basic physics behind acoustic musical instruments, including hands-on experiments with building and playing them.
- Electronic Music Instruments: Introduction to sound synthesis and how to control it with physical interfaces.
- Musique Concrète: Music from Everyday Sounds: Learn how any sound from any acoustic source can be used to create music, as in the genre Musique Concrète, originating in France in the early 1950s.
- Human sound and music perception: introduction to how people perceive sound and music.
A course that includes both concerts and lotteries
In the part about Musique Concrète, the students were given an object through a lottery. With that object they were supposed to create sounds – everything from a coffee maker, rubber bands, balloons and bicycles. The challenge became an eye-opener for many students.
“It is a good exercise to get people to start thinking about sounds and their impact on us and our environment. Sound is everywhere and affects us more than we might think,” says Palle Dahlstedt.
Cornelis Törnquist Sjöbeck was assigned to create sounds with the help of food. It resulted in a zombie-inspired piece of music created using oranges and peanuts.
Another exciting part of the course was the practical assignments about acoustic instruments. In addition to going into depth about the underlying physics behind acoustic instruments, the students themselves had to step into a workshop and try to build instruments themselves. With the instruments they performed a kind of concert, with different bands consisting of students participating.
“I did not perform during the concert myself, but it was incredibly cool to see how different groups performed their music with their own-built instruments. They had achieved a great deal of work in a short time!” says Cornelis Törnquist Sjöbeck.
Fast conversion to online teaching
With the ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus, Chalmers switched quickly to online teaching in early March – a challenge for a practically oriented course like the one in Music Engineering. But it has exceeded expectations. The students had to build their own instruments and complete the acoustic course. The workshop in electronic instruments was conducted online.
“Of course, you miss those personal meetings where you can look over their shoulders and help the students face-to-face, but meeting online is working alright, you just have to adapt and design the tasks for the format. During the workshop we shared both sound and screen with the students. In fact, it is impressive to see how both teachers and students have quickly adjusted to solve the situation that has arisen,” says Palle Dahlstedt.
Text: Julia Jansson