The Science of Sound: Math and Music

This First-Year Experience (FYE) program has two courses: MATH 111 (A Survey of Mathematics) and GEN 101 (An Integrated Learning Course).  The new general education requirement in mathematics (GEM code) requires students to successfully complete a college-level mathematics course in order to graduate with a BA or BS degree.  Such a course is MATH 111.  Hence, first-year students who successfully complete this FYE program automatically fulfill the GEM graduation requirement.  There is only one professor for both courses: Dr. Steve Hinthorne.  With a PhD in mathematics and a lifetime of experience as a pianist and church organist, he is uniquely qualified to offer this program.  If you wish to talk with him further, his office is Science Center 133, his cell phone is 314.616.6645, and his campus phone extension is 5228.  You may also email him at:

MATH 111 A Survey of Mathematics – Dr. Steve Hinthorne

This FYE course is organized around the study of the structure and analysis of musical sounds as both a physical phenomenon and a mathematical model.  Specifically, students will learn the basic arithmetic and mathematics behind the structure of musical scales, the properties of sound, the production of sound, the synthesis of electronic sounds, and some of the most basic rules of writing simple musical pieces.  The main project in the course is the writing of a short piece of music of your own creation that you will play by writing a computer code in Mathematica, a piece of software designed to aid mathematicians in all aspects of mathematics.  It has sound-generating capabilities that you will employ to create synthetic sounds so all can hear your music.

For those students who may be concerned about their level of competence with numbers, geometry, or algebra, MATH 111 is specifically designed to help you grow more confident with mathematics and raise your computational skill level.  Hence, this may be the best course for those with concerns about their math abilities.  Along with this course, Principia College provides significant help through it Center for Teaching and Learning.  An expert in mathematics is available to work with individually to help raise your level of skill and confidence even with basic arithmetic, if you need it.

Nevertheless, MATH 111 will ask you to apply your high school arithmetic, geometry, and algebra to our main question of how sound is produced and heard and what sounds “fit together” harmonically.  Students with stronger math skills will still find this analysis interesting and fun.

In addition to the study of the science of musical sounds, MATH 111 will focus your study on a few other areas of application of mathematics.  Specifically: What Math Is, A Review of Geometry, How to Solve Equations, Calculating Mortgage Payments, How to Apply Statistics, and Modeling the Solar System.

GEN 101 (MM) FYE: Integrated Learning

This course is designed to coordinate with MATH 111.  It provides curricular space in your first semester to enhance learning skills such as:

  • generative and analytic writing skills,
  • reading skills,
  • research and citing skills,
  • arithmetic and quantitative skills,
  • formal discussion skills,
  • public speaking skills, and
  • general study skills. 

Every FYE program will require a research paper on a topic related to the focus of the program.  The Science of Sound will require you to research a topic related to the science of musical sound.  Topics from last year included: How Do We Sing, How Does a Synthesizer Work, How Does an Electric Guitar Work, How Do We Hear, and The Mozart Effect.  The final draft will be up-loaded into Chalk and Wire, a storage and assessment package purchased for use by PC.  This paper will form a preliminary assessment piece for your Writing Portfolio at PC.  As with all FYE programs, this program will be assigned a writing tutor to assist you with the development of your topic and your writing of the paper.  To help with research, we will visit the librarians who are experts in helping you find the information you need.

MATH 111 will provide the space to enhance your arithmetic and quantitative skills.

To competently and properly enter an academic discussion is an important life-skill.  In GEN 101 MM we will learn, practice, and develop this skill with a number of graded discussions on topics from The Science of Sound.  In addition, you will be asked to make a public speech highlighting the research information contained in your research paper.

All FYE programs have the primary purpose of helping each student make the sometimes- difficult transition from high school academics to college academics.  One of the main differences is the expected amount of study time outside of class.  The national average in high schools is 5 hours per week.  In college, it is at least 30 hours per week.  The Science of Sound: Math and Music program is no exception.  You are asked to devote at least 12 of these 30 hours to homework from MATH 111 and GEN 101 (MM).  Finally, at Principia College, we are primarily interested in you becoming better-equipped to “enter the academic conversation” that is identified with higher education around the world.  The hope is that regardless of your current level of learning skills, you will seek to improve them to become able to read, write, research, compute, discuss, and speak about important but difficult questions confronting humanity as well as able to analyze problems and present well-thought-out solutions to these world problems.