music vs physics

Don’t be alarmed, I’m not trying to start a war. I’m really just getting down some thoughts I’ve had about teaching and learning music and physics. Recently I’ve started teaching music to high school students and I’ve started to learn the piano. Both of those have taught me some interesting lessons and I’m looking for help in finding useful analogies for teaching physics.

First the piano. I play the trombone and the guitar (chords only, really) and I sing quite a bit. I play in my school’s jazz band so I’ve been trying to get a little more music theory under my belt over the last few years to help my improvisational skills. However, I’ve never learned how to play the piano. I never had lessons and I’ve never had a piano in the house to get me to start taking it more seriously. That changed this past Christmas when we decided to buy our son a keyboard since he desperately wants to learn how to play. So now we have a keyboard in the house and I figured I could try to teach myself.

I started with the books that he’s using, but a lot of it is basic musicianship that I don’t need. So I looked at the book that came with the keyboard and have been slowly working through it for the last month. It uses the basic 5-finger approach with an occasional cross-over. Here’s me butchering the piece I’ve been working on for a couple weeks:

As you can tell, I suck. But that’s to be expected here at the beginning, right? And the piece is boring, but I can’t ask for more at this point, can I?

I was getting a little bored with those pieces, so I asked youtube for other things to work on. I found some pretty cool videos about boogie woogie piano and realized that getting the chords under my fingers could really help out. After a few days I can now reliably play basic triad chords in every key with either hand.

Jump to today. I talk below about the jazz teaching I’ve been doing, but I needed a song to work on with them today and Watermelon Man was playing on the radio as I was driving and I figured that would be a good one. It’s a 16-bar blues form which is a little different than the standard 12-bar blues stuff we’ve been doing, and it has a pretty easy head to teach. So I came home and asked the internet what the chords were. I found a version of the score and sat down at the keyboard. Within a half-hour I could do this (adding in the built in rhythm tracks that the Casio keyboard provides and changing the voicing to “jazz organ”):

I’m pretty proud of myself, and I’ve been going back to play it all day since it’s so much fun. It’s complicated, using both hands with different rhythms, but it’s repetitive and it’s easy to get myself back on track. It’s also pretty catchy given that my whole family is humming it tonight.

On to teaching jazz. My son’s school has a jazz program that isn’t big enough to let everyone who’s interested to play so I thought it would be fun to have some of his friends over once a week to work on simple jazz ideas. No sheet music, just basic forms like 12-bar blues in the ubiquitous B-flat key (though a few non-C-instruments show up so I have to really concentrate to tell them what notes to play). Not too many come over, but we have fun no matter who shows up.

Today was pretty typical. I told them about Watermelon man, played the keyboard backgrounds, and then taught them the head. The caught on pretty quickly and we just kept playing it with a little improv thrown in. I had the sheet music, but I didn’t show it to them. I wanted them to get it by ear. I think the sheet music would have helped them find the notes, but my suspicion is that they got the rhythm down better by just listening than by looking at it.

Ok, so on to some potential analogies and questions. I’ve numbered them to help with any help/comments/questions you might have:

  1. Learning a 5-finger song is like doing a textbook problem that no one cares about
    1. practicing it will get me better, but I don’t have any fun
  2. Learning Watermelon Man was like . . . I’m not sure. It was fun, and I did it fast. I used sheet music, but only to get the chords in the first place, from then on it was because I knew the song.
  3. Being able to skip the beginners books due to my other music knowledge is like a student being able to skip general physics in college thanks to her high school physics class.
  4. Teaching things like 12-bar blues without sheet music is like asking students to explain everyday phenomena with their own vocabulary.
    1. Often I’d just play notes and they’d have to noodle around to find what I was doing.
  5. Helping students develop improvisational skills is like . . . I’m not sure. There’s a structure they have to know (here are the “safe” notes you can fall back on) but there’s tons of freedom and no “wrong answers”

Here are some comment starters for you:

  • Man, you really suck. Why would you post recordings of your bad playing?
  • I like analogies X and Y because . . .
  • I don’t like analogies Q and Z because . . .
  • Here’s a way to finish your analogies . . .
  • What time is “Jazz at the Rundquists”? I’d like to come over with my . . .
  • The differences you mention between the 5-finger stuff and the chord stuff doesn’t make any sense. They’re completely different types of playing and they don’t support each other at all. Here’s what you should do instead . . .
  • We’ve got a gig coming up, are you free?

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
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3 Responses to music vs physics

  1. This post was really fun, Andy.

    One thing I like about analogies relating music to education is that unlike with the sports analogy, it’s hard to find somebody that doesn’t like music in some way. It’s easy to find someone who likes basketball, whether playing or watching a team. It’s just as easy to find someone that opts out of sports because either they aren’t athletic or they don’t find basketball interesting. That means half of your analogy-comprehension base is excluded when you start comparing it that way.

    On the other hand, everyone enjoys some type of music, or a song, or a band. The reasons for that enjoyment are as variable as the reasons for enjoyment of athletics or science, but they exist. That fact gives you a much broader base to build understanding from.

    I think #5 in the analogy is all about problem solving and problem decomposition. You have some basic structure (what do you know/not know?), there are major principles in play (laws of physics), constraints to manage (limitations of # of keys or fingers), but broad freedom on how they apply (‘make something enjoyable to listen to’).

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks, Evan! I wonder if improv is like goal-less problems?

      On Mon, Jan 26, 2015 at 2:12 AM, SuperFly Physics wrote:


  2. therationalpi says:

    I think the analogy here is that the 5-finger song is like a physics textbook problem while watermelon man is like an open-ended physics project.

    Both help you learn, but one asks you to be creative, apply your problem solving skills, and come up with something new. The simpler problem is (by design) easier to wrap your head around and only has one route to the correct answer while the second may have multiple ways to be solved.

    While I can definitely see advantages to open-ended project/jazz approach, there are some downsides. For one, it can be too big of a jump for some people and ultimately be frustrating. At least when things are simpler, you’ll always know where too start. Additionally, there’s the potential to pick up bad habits and shortcuts that will shortchange you later in life. For music, you might adopt poor fingerings that make it difficult to play complicated pieces in the future, and for science you might get into the habit of simply empirically measuring the values you should be predicting with theory (or overfitting, or any number of other bad habits).

    Ultimately, though, I think avoiding those pitfalls is the responsibility of the teacher and is the tradeoff of using more open ended approaches. Compared to the basic lessons, you’ll have an easier time keeping your students’ attention, but the tradeoff is that you’ll have to be more attentive of bad methods and bad habits that need early policing.

    On a side note, age of the students makes a big difference here. Really young children (up to about 2nd grade) pay attention differently than adults. Adults engage with things that are new and interesting, things that pique their curiosity. Children, on the other hand, engage with things that are familiar and easy to understand and will often actively disengage with things that seem too complicated. This leads to some counter-intuitive results. For example, Blues Clues plays the same episode each day for a week, because kids enjoy watching and learn more from a show they’ve already watched. Kids enjoy the familiarity, while an adult would just turn the show off immediately upon seeing its a rerun. For the same reason, you may find that what works for college and highschool students is precisely the wrong approach for exciting small children.

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