For Annika Socolofsky, the realms of art and science aren’t mutually exclusive.
Socolofsky, assistant professor of composition and faculty coach for CU Boulder SoundWorks, has solid footing in both worlds. She’s an accomplished composer, vocalist and musical pedagogue, and she also boasts a long academic resume as a student of science.
She weds these two facets of her personality in Instrument Design Lab (IDL), a course designed to give College of Music students a foundation in the science of music as they pursue their creative muse. Based on a similar class that was developed by Socolofsky’s graduate advisor Dan Trueman at Princeton University, the IDL course launched in the fall of 2022 and offers a science-based context to instrumentation, sound and musical creation.
“The course objective for IDL is for students to better understand how the physics of sound, tuning and temperament, resonance and performance all interact in our discipline,” says Socolofsky, who was preceptor for the class at Princeton. “We work to achieve this understanding through the building and designing of new acoustic instruments.”
Specifically, that’s translated into a wide array of learning activities, including constructing stringed instruments from scratch, a class activity that allows students to see exactly what goes into the physics of music. Having a perspective into each phase of the creation of an instrument can be revelatory for students, even for those who’ve been playing music since childhood.
The class also explores the scientific components of the human voice in ways that are engaging and fun. For example, Socolofsky speaks about breaking down recordings of Dolly Parton’s tune “Shinola,” and digging into the deeper scientific implications of her performance.
“Students compared the resonances of multiple vocal techniques Parton uses in the song,” Socolofsky says. “They used their mathematical findings to further why Parton chose to use various vocal techniques—head voice, chest voice, aspirated qualities and false vocal folds—to deepen the meaning of the text in the song.”
The class culminates in final projects that see students conducting in-depth research, or designing and building their own instruments. The prompt spurred innovative inventions from students, including novel takes on harps, flutes and even Japanese swords.
“Student inventions included a multi-flute—a flute capable of performing multiple notes simultaneously—by Rain Michael, a ‘bassoon-a-loon’—a wind instrument that used vibrating balloon membranes to create sound in the manner of a double reed—by Robert Scherer, and a harp with numerous resonating bodies of various shapes and materials by Jessie Lausé,” Socolofsky recalls. “A final project experiment by Reina Krumvieda was an analysis of the Aeolian tones, or ‘tachikaze,’ that Japanese swords make as they are swung through the air at different speeds.”
All of these projects harnessed the fundamentals of physics, sound analysis and basic science to help students see musical creativity in new ways. For budding musicians looking to take their art to new and exciting places, it’s an approach that’s bound to pay off in all realms of composition and performance.