Science and Mathematics faculty member named recipient of National Science Foundation grant

Luis Nasser standing at the bottom of a white staircase
Associate Professor of Science and Mathematics and musician Luis Nasser has been awarded a research grant from the National Science Foundation for his research on the thermodynamics of harmony.

Columbia College Chicago is thrilled to congratulate SCMT faculty member Luis Nasser, who has secured a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant on behalf of the college to assist in his research on the thermodynamics of harmony.

According to Nasser, this research is significant because it will require the synergy of art and science and continues on work he published in 2020 on how music informs dynamical systems, and vice versa. 

“Physics is the art of discovering and understanding the patterns of nature; seeking connections and using them to look further,” explained Nasser. “Establishing direct connection between the patterns of nature and those of harmony in music is a tantalizing avenue of research.” 

His proposal seeks to unify basic research in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics with music and composition, building upon the Principal Investigator’s recently published work on how harmony, when informed by mathematical physics, can generate new insights in both.

Nasser says the ultimate goal is to derive a general music theory driven by nature itself, instead of the harmonic style of 18th century European composers. Students at the Principal Investigator’s institution will get opportunities to use their artistic expertise, within the context of physics, to help develop innovative pedagogical tools that show how music is the voice of mathematics.

Nasser will interrogate the synergy between physics and music in three different ways, he says:

“1) In music, harmony studies ways in which an octave (frequencies ranging from f to 2f) can be divided and ordered into patterns of pitch in time. These patterns in pitch are connected to the patterns of order that emerge during phase transitions in 2-D physical systems, obtained by minimizing a “musical free energy” as a function of pitch. Extending this work to 3-D will allow established patterns in harmony to give insight into cosmology of the early universe.”

“2) I propose to extend our published work on symbolic dynamic scales like those obtained from the Thue-Morse sequence, to other symbolic dynamic sequences such as Fibonacci, Feigenbaum, etc. I will construct a 3-D version of the Euler Tonnetz to interpret the geometry of their harmony, and thereby link harmony to these dynamical systems.”

“3) We propose to perform a detailed investigation of the role of beat overtones in harmony, and to use them in an innovative technological way by developing the first dynamic, chorus harmonizer. This is a new electronic effect that has the potential to impact the sonic landscape of live and recorded music.”

According to Columbia’s Grant and Contracts Manager, David Weiner, this is currently the only grant awarded to an individual in Columbia’s Science and Mathematics Department and the first NSF grant awarded to the college in nearly 20 years.

On average, the college receives $1.5 million in federal grant funds each year, approximately 80% of which come from the U.S. Department of Education – supporting the college’s TRIO program and our work in CPS schools with the Community Schools program. The other 20% of federal grant funding typically comes from the National Endowment for the Arts in support of the Dance Center and the Museum of Contemporary Photography

To find out more about Columbia’s grant funding, visit our External Grants page.

Visit the National Science Foundation website for more information about this grant.