The Science of Sound

UW Professor John Aley discusses acoustics and students succeeding in engineering and music education.

By Rick Zuern Photos by Parwat Regmi Print Design by Lukas Lindquist
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Music sheets like these are an integral part for students pursuing music related careers.

On the UW-Madison campus, it’s a fifteen-minute walk between the College of Engineering and the School of Music facilities, housed in the Mosse Humanities building. While the two schools are not typically associated in the minds of students or the public, there exists a strong, important connection between the two disciplines – acoustical engineering.

Acoustical engineering, engineering principles applied to sounds and vibration, represents a field in which an appreciation for the art of a well-composed concerto can be combined with the rigid scientific structure of the engineering profession. Acoustical engineering is a wide and diverse field, with applications in the medical sciences, consumer electronics and even architecture, leading to creations such as ultrasounds, headphones and concert and performance halls.

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Mills Hall—one of the UW School of Music concert halls.

John Aley, professor of trumpet at the School of Music since 1981, acknowledges the importance of this integration of disciplines. “Acoustics is an engineering science,” Aley says. “It’s fantastic how all this information comes into play to make a great [music] hall. I’ve played in halls like Carnegie Hall, and when you’re in a hall that sounds great, you can sound great, and that’s really fun.” Performance halls need to be tuned to precise standards, ensuring that the desired sound of the performance is provided to the entire hall, and any unwanted noise is diminished. Halls will often feature soft or plush walls, absorbing sound waves that would otherwise bounce off a hard surface and create sonic interference. UW-Madison is currently planning to erect such a music hall on campus, adjacent to the Chazen Art Museum.

It’s reasonably said that when a new hall is made, it will be really good acoustically speaking, because the science is there.

Professor John Aley

Aley says he is excited for the addition of the new School of Music performance center. Currently in its fundraising stage, the 57,000 square foot building is designed to house two performance halls, with a combined capacity of over a thousand people. “It’s reasonably said that when a new hall is made, it will be really good acoustically speaking, because the science is there,” Aley says. Almost any new effort to build a performance hall will be sure to include expertise from an acoustical engineer, ensuring that each performance for years onward will sound excellent. The difference between playing in a well-tuned hall versus one that is less well equipped is like “night and day,” according to Aley.

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Percussion instruments prior to a rehearsal

A number of students and graduates of the School of Music and College of Engineering have moved on to acoustical engineering fields, Aley says. He mentions that students in music that also find interest in electronics, such as electrical engineering, often find work for companies like Bosch that produce speaker and microphone technology. Historically, these students have had great success in blending their different educations into a career they are proud of.

Aley offers sage advice to those who wish to pursue a career in engineering and in music: “A student will not excel unless they are disciplined to practice,” Aley says. “The biggest characteristic is discipline. You have two gods that have pretty exacting standards and time commitments, and you have to be really skilled in time management.” The coursework may not be easy, but Aley believes that the commitment is worth it.

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Professor Aley poses with his pocket trombone

“Find a balance.” Aley continues, “There are so many choices to be made. Music informs the engineering, and engineering has to be very structured. Music, within technique, is structured as well, but there is also the opportunity for creative output that enters in what you do when you play. When you have that balance, you are doing work that is focused, which continues to make you a better person.” That balance between music and engineering is precisely what acoustical engineering thrives on. Students that can harness their appreciation for musical performance and their skills in engineering will not have difficulty thriving later in life, both on the UW-Madison campus and around the world. It is acoustical engineering that makes the College of Engineering and School of Music seem not so far apart after all.