Fall 2012 / Spring 2013

Photo: Jacob Boll (BA '12)
Photo: Jacob Boll (BA '12)
“I hope that students take pride in the handwork of learning to use tools to build a real physical object. Too many of their generation only know how to manipulate keys on a computer. In the physical world, which we still and will always live, learning to make something is always a positive skill and experience.”     -Dave Dolak 

The Sounds of Science

In Dave Dolak's Physics course, students are learning the sounds of science.

Dave Dolak belongs to a select group of artisans who can construct, repair, and restore stringed instruments. Dolak is a luthier.

The field of lutherie is an area of expertise that is small—part art, part science—and one that Dolak regularly puts to use in the Department of Science and Mathematics, where he teaches a unique, rigorous, and highly interdisciplinary Physics course that students would be hard-pressed to find at other colleges and universities in the United States.

“The Physics of Musical Instruments” integrates some of the complex, fundamental knowledge all luthiers must master into a practical, science-based classroom setting. Students learn the physics of vibrating systems and waves; the science behind pitch, loudness, envelope, and timbre; the significance of sound generation in chordophones, idiophones, and aerophones; and the mathematics of musical scales. There is hands-on work, too: Every student constructs a functional musical instrument, with which he or she writes an original composition at the end of the semester.

“While approximately twenty-five percent of students are actual music majors, by self-selection, more than ninety percent of each class reports that they play a musical instrument and can read music at some level,” says Dolak, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Science and Mathematics. “But I emphasize that this still is a course for science credit, and thus students must study and think like scientists—even if we all have fun with the music.”

Physics courseThis interdisciplinary, science-based course, Dolak says, engages students in three ways. “First, there is the intellectual level of critical thinking, scientific exploration, mathematical measurement, and concise writing to express one’s findings,” he says. “Also, there is the sensory engagement of auditory stimulation and the appreciation of musical sounds. Finally, the student is exposed to a very tactile and spatial experience of understanding a physical object through the intimate, hands-on process of working with tools to build a functional instrument. This three-fold approach is what I believe makes ‘The Physics of Musical Instruments’ unique among college courses anywhere.”

Dolak is no stranger to lutherie. In the late ’80s he apprenticed under a violin/guitar maker, and he regularly attends conferences where he displays his instruments. Dolak is also no stranger to science. He holds an MS in Environmental Science from Indiana University, and in the ’90s he worked for the Argonne National Laboratory, a nonprofit research laboratory operated by the University of Chicago for the United States Department of Energy, where he conducted research on the clean-up of chemical and nuclear waste from the Cold War-era.

Dolak came to Columbia in the spring of 1999 and immediately began co-teaching an earlier version of “The Physics of Musical Instruments,” then titled, “The Physics of Music.” The course was renamed in 2006 in order to more accurately reflect the curriculum, and Dolak began teaching the class solo. The curriculum changed again in 2010 when Dolak created an Honors version of the class, in which students use modern software to explore sound sampling, course requirements are especially rigorous, and students are required to be a bit more creative with the instruments they construct.
Physics course
In addition to emphasizing immersion in the process of scientific exploration, Dolak teaches his students how to better apply their critical thinking and communication skills to complete coursework. He also presses his students to think of mathematics as a useful metric for conducting analyses. People shouldn’t fear numbers or equations, he tells his students, as they can be instrumental in describing how the world works.

But that’s not all. “I hope that students take pride in the handwork of learning to use tools to build a real physical object,” Dolak says. “Too many of their generation only know how to manipulate keys on a computer. In the physical world, which we still and will always live, learning to make something is always a positive skill and experience.”

Photos by Jacob Boll (BA '12).